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Federal workers' looming bills could rock the housing market

Business Insider logo Business Insider 1/11/2019 Bob Bryan

The ongoing government shutdown looks like it might cause a mess for the US housing market.

As the shutdown enters a record-tying 21st day, a number of worries are piling up, ranging from looming mortgage payments for federal workers to missing rent assistance from the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD).

The problems have left workers worried about making ends meet, potential buyers frozen out of loans, and affordable housing experts concerned about evictions.

Missing paychecks mean missed payments

The most direct effect of the government shutdown on the housing market is the increasing possibility that the 800,000 federal workers who are not receiving paychecks during the shutdown are going to face a mortgage or rent bill without any income to pay it.

According to online real estate database firm Zillow, federal workers who are not receiving paychecks have $249 million in mortgage payments and $189 million in rent payments due this month.

While the Office of Personnel Management released guidance for federal employees who may experience problems, many employees worried that the suggestions - which include writing letters to landlords asking for a delay - are woefully inadequate. 

"No payments means no gas for our cars, no money for our prescriptions, our groceries, our rents and our mortgages," Steve Ching, an electrician who contracts for NASA, told the Washington Post. "We're all wondering how long our families will be able to hold out."

Related video: Government workers share their $0.00 pay stubs amidst shutdown (provided by USA Today)

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Services for homebuyers are experiencing some problems

In addition to the looming payments for federal workers, the federal government has also stopped activities such as loan programs and income checks that people need to buy homes.

While Federal Housing Administration (FHA) and Veterans Affairs (VA) loans are going out during the shutdown, new applicants may experience delays as FHA/VA employees who work on the underwriting process are on furlough, which means they aren't working.

Additionally, the US Department of Agriculture, which provides loans for people buying homes in rural areas, is not processing those requests.

The IRS is also working through a backlog of income verifications that are needed for some borrowers because the process was paused when the shutdown went into effect, so some buyers may experience delays.

These pauses are causing problems for some people trying to buy a new home, according to a survey by the National Association of Realtors released on Tuesday. 

Three-quarters of realtors surveyed reported no clients having issues due to the shutdown. But 22% said a current client or potential client was having trouble, with reasons for disruptions including:

  • 25% said "the buyer decided not to buy due to general economic uncertainty, though they were not a federal government employee"
  • 17% had a client who was unable to get a USDA rural home loan processed due to the shutdown
  • 13% had a delay due to IRS income verification problems
  • 9% had a delay due to the FHA pausing loans
  • 9% said they had a client who decided not buy because they were a federal employee
  • 6% had a seller who could not sell because their move was impacted by the shutdown
  • 3% had a client who was rejected for a loan because they were on furlough
  • 3% had a buyer who decided not to buy because they were on furlough

Affordable housing problems

The housing problems are also threatening to hit some of the most vulnerable Americans, with HUD experiencing a funding shortfall. 

Contracts with 1,150 landlords who offer subsidized units for low income Americans have expired during the government shutdown and another 500 contracts will expire in January, according to the Washington Post. This means those landlords will not receive the federal assistance to offset the lower rent costs, and as many as 100,000 low-income tenants could face eviction.

HUD has sent letters to those landlords who are no longer under contract asking for extensions and a HUD spokesperson told the Post that no one has ever been evicted due to a shutdown.

But the current funding lapse is poised to set the record for longest shutdown in the modern budgeting era on Saturday - and the unprecedented length could mean unprecedented effects.

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