When does compassion for the downtrodden become indulgence for the deadbeat?
The Tampa Bay housing boom slogan, "No Credit, No Problem," has been replaced by the housing crash credo "No Payment, No Problem."
For every move by the Florida Bankers Association to adopt Georgia's three-missed-payments-and-you're-out attitude toward home repossession, lenders on the ground have been slow in faulting defaulters.
Don't get me wrong. Thousands of Tampa Bay residents have made good-faith attempts to pay delinquent mortgages. It's for them that the slew of refinancing, loan modification and mediation programs has been designed.
But if the government's helping hand is stabilizing the Tampa Bay housing market as a whole, the statistics don't reflect it. Just this week, First American CoreLogic reported that Tampa Bay's mortgage delinquency rose to 16.67 percent in January. These are property owners more than 90 days late on their payments.
Delinquency rates have risen relentlessly every month in the past year from a starting point of 10.38 percent in January 2009. It's the same story with foreclosure rates, which during the same period climbed from 5.98 percent to 9.77 percent of all residential mortgages.
What's to blame? The problem isn't just fresh mortgage defaults, but the system's inability to process and purge older foreclosure cases from as long ago as 2007.
As hard as it is to say, hundreds, if not thousands, of homeowners have stayed in their houses and condos long past the expiration date, milking the public's trusts.
In one notorious case, a Tampa Bay homeowner has clung to his upscale home after refusing to pay his $3,000 monthly mortgage for 21/2 years. That's $90,000 in unpaid interest, principal and escrow.
The house is so laden with debt, so pummelled by depreciation, that catching up is nearly impossible. What's postponing his long-overdue eviction? Maybe the bank's overworked. Maybe the homeowner has played clever defense. But unless we're prepared to entitle every American to a free four-bedroom house in the suburbs, it's time to cease the delaying game.
The giddy-up message has been slow to sink in. Just as Florida counties began mandating mediation between lenders and distressed homeowners, Washington suggested forcing lenders to postpone foreclosures until they evaluate homeowners for government aid.
Some argue the market is too weak to handle a flood of repossessed homes. That's no longer entirely true. Home sales rose across Tampa Bay in 2009. Economists and demographers predict population growth will resume in dribbles this year. What's more, foreclosure-prevention programs have been failure prone. Some studies show more than half of homeowners initially helped re-defaulted within a year.
Compassion is always easier on someone else's dime. Do-gooderism has its place, but it can quickly become do-nothingism.