While the world frets about foreclosures, across the gritty blocks of South Side Chicago are hundreds of examples of how to spur lasting development, build communities, and insulate them from the specter of foreclosure.
These are homes financed with loans from a class of lender known as community development financial institutions.
If Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke and the incoming Commerce secretary are serious about exploring all solutions to the mortgage crisis that has shaken our economy to its foundations, they should tap into the expertise that recently gathered in Albuquerque for the Opportunity Finance Network's annual conference of CDFIs.
When Mr. Bernanke addressed the Opportunity Finance Network's 2006 session he said that CDFIs "help unlock the economic potential of lower-income and underserved communities. … Among other benefits, the familiarity with each community that CDFIs develop can help to gauge and control risk."
Controlling risk while unlocking economic potential should be one of the chief priorities as the Fed and others move to stabilize the housing market — and the CDFIs that Chairman Bernanke praised in 2006 have a lot of sound thinking and practice to contribute to the discussion today.
It's become accepted wisdom in some circles to blame the victim for the foreclosure wave sweeping the nation — to castigate those with less-than-stellar credit whose original sin was that they shared the American dream of homeownership.
But if we look closely at what really took place in these markets we should contrast the examples of solid, careful lending to "subprime" borrowers that is done by CDFIs with the aggressive fee-fueled practices of institutions whose main priority was enriching their CEOs.
Then it becomes crystal clear that it was the character flaws of the lenders, not the borrowers, that got us into this mess. And that CDFIs can show us the way back to reality.
Consider the track record of the nation's largest CDFI, ShoreBank, which has been lending to less-advantaged homebuyers for more than 30 years. With $2.5 billion in assets, Shore has branched out from its home on Chicago's South Side to serve the needs of poor communities in Cleveland, Detroit, and Seattle — all communities that have been hit hard by the mortgage meltdown.
Shore, like its fellow CDFIs, has built a solid business model from providing mortgages, establishing and building savings accounts, and providing equity to small businesses in places that might otherwise be perceived as too risky.
Many banks have placed billions with CDFIs over the past decades — precisely because they know of CDFIs' long success in establishing creditworthiness in tough markets, building home values in formerly "redlined" neighborhoods, and helping to avoid problems like foreclosure. And they've done this while having chargeoffs less than or comparable to those of the banking industry as a whole.
That's a record of building true wealth for people at the bottom of the ladder, of saving communities, not exploiting them. It's a record that can offer valuable lessons for those in government struggling to solve the worst housing crisis since the Depression.
Given how clear it is that CDFIs know how to create wealth in times of challenge, we can only wonder why those who have financed, regulated, and extolled the virtues of CDFIs have so far failed to find a role for them in the official discourse about how to turn things around.
CDFIs deserve a seat at the table as Washington decision makers' debate how to craft a way out of the mortgage mess.