A new Romney campaign ad poses the "Are you better off?" question to a particularly hard-hit population: Florida homeowners.
Against a black and white image of Obama, a narrator says, "Here in Florida, we’re not better off under President Obama. Home values collapsed, home construction jobs lost, high rate of foreclosure."
Mitt Romney, the ad promises, will provide an antidote to all these ills: alternatives to foreclosure, an end to the mortgage lending freeze and 700,000 new jobs for Florida. (We contacted both campaigns for comment on the ad, but didn't hear back.)
In a state where homes lost more than half their value in the recession, it’s a handy line of attack. But we found that the claim -- faulting Obama for depressed house values, lost jobs and high foreclosures -- oversimplifies a problem with many layers and puts too much blame on the president for a crisis that began before he took office.
'Home values collapsed'
We’ll start by examining home values. The ad cited Zillow, a real estate website, as backup for the claim. We talked to their head economist, Stan Humphries, who shared some interesting statistics.
Home values in Florida began rising in earnest in 2003 and 2004. That accelerated through 2005, hitting a peak in May 2006. The median home value in Florida that month: $257,800.
Since that time, the median value has plummeted by 51.2 percent through July 2012, to $125,700.
So yes, home values have declined during Obama’s term. But there’s more to the story.
Humphries pointed out that the decline under Obama so far amounts to 22.3 percent. Under his predecessor, George W. Bush, Florida home values fell 35.5 percent.
"More of those declines happened on Bush’s watch than on Obama’s watch," Humphries said.
Here’s another thing to note about the Obama years: Home values in Florida bottomed out in October 2011. (Median price: $122,400). They’ve been climbing since, and in the past year they inched up 1.3 percent. Zillow forecasts an appreciation rate of 6 percent in Miami, 2.3 percent in Tampa and 2.8 percent in Orlando. That’s better than the expectation for the nation as a whole, Humphries said.
'Home construction jobs lost'
For data on construction jobs, we turned to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
In the past decade, construction jobs in Florida enjoyed steady growth, hitting a peak in June 2006 of 691,900. They began to steadily decline at that point, shedding 100,000 jobs by October of 2007 and another 100,000 by September 2008.
The most recent jobs figure is for July 2012: 308,800.
But a closer look at those numbers reveals this:
• Jobs lost from the peak until Obama took office: 231,000
• Jobs lost since he took office: 138,200
Notice too that the timeline for construction layoffs parallels the decline of home values -- a peak in mid 2006, followed by a steady drop-off.
"When housing prices started to fall, (there was) no need to build new homes," said Ken Thomas, an independent bank consultant and economist in Miami. "It was the housing crisis, the collapse of the housing bubble, that basically did in the construction workers."
'High rate of foreclosure'
According to RealtyTrac, a website that collects and tracks foreclosure data, the Florida foreclosure wave crashed ashore about a year after home values collapsed.
In May 2006 (the month home values peaked), Florida had 7,455 new foreclosure filings. In May 2007, that figure leapt to 17,000, a 128 percent increase. Filings didn’t slow down for a long time. Several months in 2009 saw more than 30,000 new cases.
Only in mid 2010, when the robo-signing scandal among banks came to light, was there a noticeable drop-off. Banks ceased new filings as they re-assessed their practices. And since then? Foreclosures are on the way up again. RealtyTrac found that Florida’s foreclosure rate in August 2012 jumped to second highest in the country, with 14,726 new filings. That means one in every 328 housing units under a foreclosure notice.
Here's how the foreclosures appear relative to Obama:
• From May 2007 (beginning of the increase) to January 2009 (when he took office): 519,977 new filings
• From February 2009 (his first full month in office) to August 2012: 866,938 new filings
"Unlike other foreclosure cycles in the past, this wasn’t the result of a bad economy. It was the excesses in the housing market in terms of prices and overbuilding," said Daren Blomquist, vice president at RealtyTrac.
Added Humphries: "The foreclosure rates are a natural consequence of home value loss of 50 percent. That leaves a huge amount of negative equity. That is what fuels a lot of foreclosures."
So who’s a weary homeowner to blame?
Here’s Ken Harney, a syndicated real estate columnist:
"Blaming Obama for property value declines that were underway during the Bush administration, and caused in part by financial regulators who were asleep in the cockpit during the Bush years, is ridiculous," Harney told PolitiFact. "The Obama administration is open to criticism for the poorly designed, timid and poorly executed foreclosure-prevention and loan modification efforts it created following the housing bust, but had nothing to do with the underlying problems that took down Florida's hyperinflated property values."
So while it’s clear Obama didn’t cause these troubles, what did he do to fix them? As we’ve previously reported, he pursued a number of remedies, with only modest success.
The Fraud Enforcement and Recovery Act, which Obama signed in 2009, makes it a federal crime to make a materially false statement on a mortgage application or to willfully overvalue a property to influence any action by a mortgage lending business. PolitiFact's Obameter gave that a Promise Kept on our Obameter. And new standards for helping people understand their mortgage were included in the Dodd-Frank financial overhaul passed in 2010, another Promise Kept.
But he's had limited success with efforts that would have provided the most help to homeowners. A temporary foreclosure moratorium in early 2009 halted filings while banks waited for the new administration to get its plan in place to address the crisis. It’s not clear, though, that it ultimately kept many people out of foreclosure. Analysts say a change in bankruptcy law that Obama sought to allow judges to modify individual loans could have made a significant difference, but it died in Congress.
A foreclosure prevention fund was the heart of Obama’s promise. He originally pledged $10 billion but ended up setting aside $75 billion, using TARP funds. He predicted the money would assist 9 million homeowners. But after three years, far fewer have won permanent mortgage help. We rated that Promise Broken.
Romney’s ad claims that under Obama, home values in Florida collapsed, construction jobs were lost and the state’s foreclosure rate soared.
This much is true: The median home value in Florida has dropped by more than half; 300,000-plus construction jobs have disappeared and the Sunshine State continues to rack up a large number of foreclosure filings.
But each one of those trends began well before Obama was elected. Analysts say they have been driven by a natural and inevitable market correction much more than by any government policies. But since the ad draws a cause/effect relationship -- the cause being Obama’s presidency, the effect being a sour housing market -- it’s worth noting that more of the decline in home values happened on Bush’s watch, and in the last year Florida housing has again begun to appreciate.
At PolitiFact, claims that cite a true statistic but apply misplaced blame on a politician or office holder are commonly rated Half True. We think this three-part claim stretches the truth even further. Homeowners in Florida who have watched their property value sink and their neighbors’ houses abandoned in foreclosure know this didn’t start when Obama walked into the White House. They’re in at least year seven of this grim reality.
Romney’s ad leaves out many critical facts to create a misleading impression. We rate it Mostly False.