The real cost of Wall Street’s reckless practices

By | Published in San Diego Union-Tribune | November 6, 2011 |

As “Occupy Wall Street” protests continue in San Diego and other cities across the nation, it is important to bear in mind the real costs of Wall Street’s recklessness on our communities. Almost 50,000 homes have been foreclosed in the city of San Diego since the start of the mortgage financial crisis in 2008. And new data released last month by DataQuick suggest that this number is continuing to grow at an alarming rate. These foreclosures, as documented in a recent report from the San Diego-based Center on Policy Initiatives and the Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment, have imposed significant and uncompensated costs on families and communities, well and above the financial losses faced by banks.

Much policy attention has been given to the impacts of this crisis on Wall Street – including mortgage lenders and investors in mortgage-backed securities who have received the lion’s share of federal bailouts. In that context, the financial and emotional losses to homeowners have often been minimized, if not justified, by narratives of fraud and irresponsibility. But when homes are lost to foreclosure, the entire community suffers: homeowners and their families, as well as neighbors, local governments, schools and businesses.

As foreclosed homes lose almost a fourth of their monetary value, surrounding properties follow suit, decimating home equity across neighborhoods. CPI and ACCE estimate that, in the past five years, almost $20 billion in property values have been lost in the city of San Diego alone. Because home equity is the major – if not the only – form of wealth held by average American families, this decline in property value has substantial negative effects on the resources available for retirement, education, medical care and other expenses.

Contrary to popular belief, renters are not shielded from these downward trends. When property values and expenditure decline, unemployment and underemployment increase, cutting across the entire population. In addition, as the tax base is eroded, local tax revenues decline, making it difficult for local governments to address mounting needs. Abandoned foreclosed properties alone impose significant costs to the city in the form of maintenance, inspections and public safety monitoring. Combined with the loss of property tax revenues, these costs add up to almost $1 billion. The resulting fiscal pressures challenge the ability of local government agencies to provide basic services like parks, libraries, fire and police.

Unlike financial institutions, cities and families have not been protected from the reckless decisions of mortgage companies, banks and investors. Policy change at the federal level is slow to come and has had practically no impact in the low-income and minority communities where foreclosures are concentrated and their impacts most severe. Today, the costs associated with predatory lending and other reckless financial practices of Wall Street are being felt throughout the region. Financial institutions responsible for foreclosed properties must be held accountable. Our City Council can do its part to protect our communities by supporting the Property Value Protection Ordinance, which would require banks holding foreclosed properties to register the properties with the city, and puts in place fines that penalize those failing to register and maintain their properties.

This is a straightforward and pragmatic way of holding Wall Street accountable to our communities.

Joassart-Marcelli is an economic geographer at San Diego State University.