Think the Shutdown Doesn't Affect You? Try Applying For a Mortgage

Why the legacy of the housing crisis is making the government shutdown even more disruptive.


The government shutdown in Washington has been messing with the housing market in some maddeningly invisible ways. If you're trying to apply for a home loan right now under the U.S. Department of Agriculture's rural housing program, for example, you're out of luck. That program is shut down (the USDA backs less than 5 percent of all mortgages).

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, home to the Federal Housing Administration (which backs 25 percent of new home purchases) has furloughed 96 percent of its staff. The FHA is still endorsing new loans but warns of delays. Same with the department of Veterans Affairs (which guarantees about 10 percent of home loans).

Regardless of who backs your loan, if you're a furloughed federal worker trying to buy a new house, you've obviously got different problems. No one is around to verify your employment.

And then there is everyone else. For anyone trying to buy or refinance a home right now, hamstrung federal agencies also play some key roles in all the paperwork behind the scenes. Lenders typically request tax return transcripts from the IRS to check that loan applicants really have as much income as they say. The IRS is no longer fielding those requests. The Social Security Administration is similarly used to verify applicants' identities.

As a result of all of this, delays are compounding in the housing market that could become more problematic by the day. As the Washington Post reported, every day about 15,000 new home mortgages and 18,000 refinancings are completed somewhere in the U.S. The longer the shutdown drags on, the harder it will be for lenders and federal agencies to get caught up – and the more still-fragile housing markets may suffer.

One irony to all of this is that the legacy of the housing crisis is making the shutdown more disruptive, in at least two ways. One is that the federal government has a much larger hand in the mortgage market today than it did at the height of the housing boom. Now, more than 90 percent of all new mortgages are backed by the federal government (Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, however, are not directly affected by the shutdown).

Agencies like the VA and the FHA are responsible for a significantly larger share of loans today than in 2005 and 2006, while the share backed by the private market has plummeted. This chart from the 2013 State of the Nation's Housing report, from the Harvard Joint Center for Housing Studies, shows (in the orange line) how the federal government's role in the mortgage market skyrocketed after the housing bust.

That means any backlog at federal agencies like the FHA will impact a larger share of the housing market now than it would have a decade ago. Meanwhile, banks are being such sticklers about identity and income verification with the IRS and Social Security Administration precisely because they learned during the housing boom not to hand out mortgages left and right. As Lisa Rein wrote in the Post, lenders weren't concerned about being quite so thorough the last time the government shut down, in 1995.

David Stevens, a former head of the FHA, put it this way to Rein: "The need for document checks and quality control just didn’t exist. Today, we’re in a world of huge risk and regulatory requirements."

In one sense, that's a good thing. But if you're on the other end of a home loan application right now that's going nowhere thanks to the government shutdown, we'd love to hear from you about what that particular misery is like. Tell us your stories in the comments.

About the Author

  • Emily Badger is a former staff writer at CityLab. Her work has previously appeared in Pacific StandardGOODThe Christian Science Monitor, and The New York Times. She lives in the Washington, D.C. area.