Earlier this week there was a wave of stories in the mainstream media announcing that the foreclosure crisis in Massachusetts had ended. That came as news to me. As I wrote last week in the aftermath of my speech at the annual meeting of the Lowell Housing Partnership, the real estate market in Greater Lowell is sluggish and is being held back by high levels of debt being carried by so many who bought or refinanced during the peak of the housing bubble.
While there’s no question that the volume of foreclosures is trending downward – there were about 40% fewer new foreclosures in the past three months than in the same period last year – a significant number of new foreclosure will continue to occur in the months and maybe even in the years to come. That is because so many home owners continue to owe more on their mortgages than their houses are worth which makes them one bad break away from foreclosure. The loss of a job, an extended illness or a divorce are just some of the events that will trigger a home-ownership crisis for many people. The only way out of this is an across the board increase in the value of real estate. With the economy slowly improving and interest rates remaining so low, a rebound in real estate values is certainly a possibility, but it won’t happen overnight. It will be a long, slow slog.
Just to put things in a historical perspective, during the bursting of the last previous real estate bubble during the 1990s, the peak year for mortgage foreclosures was 1992 when the city of Lowell saw 762 foreclosure deeds recorded. In the more recent real estate collapse, the peak number of foreclosures occurred in 2008 when Lowell had 602. When things were fairly stable during the early 2000s, foreclosures averaged only 50 per year. In 2003, for instance, there were only 42. In contrast, in 2012 there were 342 foreclosures in Lowell. So, it’s better than it was at the peak of the crisis, but we are far from a full recovery.