LAS VEGAS (AP) — Republican U.S. Rep. Joe Heck said every homeowner in Nevada is vulnerable to foreclosure as the state grapples with the worst housing market in the nation.
Heck urged his fellow members of Congress to consider solutions that would help property owners negotiate with their lenders and invest in the housing market. The comments were made during a field hearing on the Nevada housing market hosted by the U.S. House’s financial services committee Thursday morning in Las Vegas.
Heck said “no one is immune” from the ongoing foreclosure crisis that has reduced the value of most Nevada homes below the remaining balances owed on the properties. Nevada has for years had the highest unemployment and foreclosure rates in the nation. Roughly one in every 278 Nevada homes saw a foreclosure filing in February, or more than twice the national average, according to foreclosure tracking firm RealtyTrac.
“We’ve got to put into place a system that allows the average homeowner to understand what the system is and give them options to be able to stay in their home,” Heck said.
Heck, who is running for a second term in the state’s most competitive House district, has been criticized by Democrats for not doing more to tackle the housing crisis. The hearing Thursday seemed designed to blunt those attacks.
Heck, who requested the hearing, stressed that the federal government must help people stay in their homes and purchase new homes once they have been removed from a property by a lender. He recently introduced legislation that seeks to help people who experienced a foreclosure or short sale purchase a new home. Heck said he still believes that the best policy for Nevada is to encourage homeownership to grow the economy, tackle the area’s oversupply of vacant homes and increase property values.
Heck said his 3rd Congressional District, which includes suburban Henderson, the second most populous city in Nevada, has the most housing problems of any district in the state. Heck, who brought a real estate agent onto his staff last year to help address his constituents’ many housing questions, said his office has been working with individual homeowners to reduce their monthly mortgage payments.
“My question for the banks is: Why is it so difficult to do this? I mean, you will do it if we call you, why won’t you do it if the consumer calls you,” he said
Heck’s Democratic rival, Nevada Assembly Speaker John Oceguera, has dismissed Heck’s housing efforts as too little, too late.
“After witnessing 61 straight months of Nevadans suffering from the highest foreclosure rates in the country - a crisis he called a ‘blip on the radar’ in 2008 - and focusing more on ending a tax break for the middle class then helping struggling homeowners, Joe Heck woke up to the fact that it is an election year and introduced legislation addressing a critical issue Nevadans are facing,” Oceguera said recently.
Heck, Democratic U.S. Rep Shelley Berkley and U.S. Rep. Shelley Moore Capito, (R-W.Va.), listened to testimony from local housing officials and lenders during Thursday’s hearing.
Capito said the housing crisis is largely a regional problem that requires private market solutions, while Berkley said uncooperative lenders have made it difficult to help underwater homeowners.
“They are losing their homes through no fault of their own,” said Berkley, whose district includes the Las Vegas Strip.
Keith Lynam, a real estate agent in Las Vegas, said homeowners in Nevada are overwhelmingly more likely to be underwater on their homes compared to anywhere else in the nation.
“Getting our housing market back on track is the only way to help our economy recover and get jobs back in the community,” Lynam said during the hearing.
Nevada’s tourism-based economy faces a 12.7 percent unemployment rate. During the boom years, recreation along the Las Vegas Strip created jobs and fueled construction across the region. When the economy dropped in 2008, construction workers lost their jobs in mass, as did other workers with ties to the housing market.
There are roughly 161 licensed mortgage brokers in Nevada this year, compared to more than 2,200 during the peak. The number of licensed mortgage agents in the state has dropped from nearly 20,000 to roughly 2,100, said Janis Grady, director of the Nevada Association of Mortgage Professionals.