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How the Mortgage Crisis in Nevada Will Affect Voters at the Polls

September 18, 2012 at 12:00 AM EDT
In 2006, Nevada's economy was booming. Jobs were plentiful due to a burst in commercial and residential construction. Two years later, the housing market bottomed out and more than 60 percent of homeowners found themselves underwater. Ray Suarez reports on how the mortgage crisis in Nevada will play out on Election Day.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: And we come back to the presidential race and the start of our tour of swing states this fall. The two campaigns are neck and neck in Nevada, battling for voters in a state that is still reeling from the housing crisis.

Ray Suarez has our story.

RAY SUAREZ: Albert Decall is a maintenance man at a Las Vegas casino. When he came to this country from Cuba 30 years ago, his goal was to buy a house for his wife and children. In 2006, he made that happen.

ALBERT DECALL, homeowner: This was my dream. I worked two jobs, no vacation. And, finally, I get some savings to give the down payment for the house.

RAY SUAREZ: Decall paid $395,000 with $100,000 down payment. The Nevada economy was booming. Jobs were plentiful, thanks to a sustained burst of commercial and residential construction. Just two years later, the bottom fell out.

Housing prices plummeted. New construction stopped. And more than 60 percent of Las Vegas residents found themselves underwater, holding mortgages bigger than the value of their properties. Decall’s house was suddenly worth less than half of what he paid. And on top of that, Decall’s wife lost her job.

So you were underwater.

ALBERT DECALL: I was underwater.

RAY SUAREZ: If that kept on going that way, would you have lost the house?

ALBERT DECALL: Yes. I definitely would not — I would have lost the house if that kept going.

RAY SUAREZ: But Decall heard about a government program called HAMP, the Home Affordable Modification Plan. The Obama administration launched the program in the spring of 2009.

It requires lenders to work with distressed homeowners to bring their mortgage payments down to one-third of their income.

ALBERT DECALL: I almost going to lose my dream, my house. And I — thanks to the president with that program to help the homeowners, you know, in underwater houses, I saved my dream. I saved — I’m happy.

RAY SUAREZ: So, Albert, you give President Obama credit for saving your house?

ALBERT DECALL: Of course. Of course I give the credit. If it is not for him, I lost the house.

RAY SUAREZ: Decall says that’s just one of the reasons he plans to vote for Mr. Obama in November.

But the president rarely mentions those programs during his frequent visits to this battleground state. Last week in Las Vegas, the only reference he made to the Nevada foreclosure crisis was to talk about how it was caused by the policies of his predecessor, George W. Bush.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: These misguided policies led to the biggest recession we have seen since the Great Depression. Millions of innocent Americans, especially here in Nevada, lost their homes, their jobs, their savings. And we are still fighting to recover from that.

Nevada got hit harder than most. But here’s the thing. I don’t think the best answers for today’s new challenges are old sales pitches.

DAVID DAMORE, University of Las Vegas: Surprisingly, there are some undecided voters still.

RAY SUAREZ: University of Las Vegas political science professor David Damore says the president has good reason to avoid talking about his mortgage relief programs. While about 1.2 million people have benefited from them, that’s far less than the four million families the president hoped to reach.

DAVID DAMORE: A lot of programs that they have really pushed in Nevada haven’t really done a whole lot there. So does he get points for trying? Perhaps. But at the end of the day, you still have people who are underwater, people who can’t move. You have, you know, the distressed properties, people walking away from them, undercutting the value of other people’s homes.

I just sense there’s just a general frustration out there.

RAY SUAREZ: For his part, Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney has been quick to capitalize on that frustration.

MITT ROMNEY (R): Today, Nevada unemployment is over 12 percent. Home values have plummeted. And Nevada’s foreclosure rate is the highest in the nation.

I have walked in Nevada neighborhoods blighted by abandoned homes, where people wonder why Barack Obama failed them.

Well, Mr. President, Nevada has had enough of your kind of help.

(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

RAY SUAREZ: Nevada may have already lived through the worst of the housing crisis. It’s far from over. There are still sellers who can’t find buyers, buyers who think, if they wait just a little bit longer, prices will go down even further, and, by one estimate, another 250,000 houses still facing foreclosure.

JIM BROOKS, Las Vegas Realtor: I don’t think it will be an issue. It’s another $15,000. They are getting financing.

RAY SUAREZ: Jim Brooks is a Las Vegas realtor who says he sees firsthand that the president’s efforts to stop the foreclosure crisis were a failure.

JIM BROOKS: The restraints and the guidelines were so restrictive that less than 10 percent of our clients even qualified before we even sat down to have a meeting with them.

I was involved with a few personal cases where a client would and should qualify for the money, and the banks just weren’t forced to release it. There wasn’t a whole lot of regulation on the money that was handed out to the lending institutions.

RAY SUAREZ: Brooks says he will be voting for Mitt Romney this fall, partly because he thinks Romney has a better sense of how the marketplace works.

JIM BROOKS: Romney’s approach of letting it just — let the floodgates open and let it take its course, I believe that would have worked better than what we had.

RAY SUAREZ: Last fall, Romney told The Las Vegas Review Journal’s editorial board he didn’t favor government intervention into the foreclosure crisis. The Obama administration has hammered that point in radio ads going after Romney and his running mate.

NARRATOR: Here’s what Romney told The Review Journal.

MITT ROMNEY: Don’t try and stop the foreclosure process. Let it run its course and hit the bottom.

NARRATOR: And Paul Ryan?

REP. PAUL RYAN, R-Wis.: Housing, going to have to hit bottom before you can come up.

NARRATOR: Romney and Ryan would just let home values bottom out. And Ryan voted against efforts to help responsible Nevada families refinance.

RAY SUAREZ: Romney has altered his position in recent months, saying he does favor some action to avoid foreclosure, but his ads are light on specifics.

MITT ROMNEY: But this president cannot tell us that you’re better off today than when he took office.

NARRATOR: Nevada is not better off under President Obama. The housing crisis and mass foreclosures have devastated Nevada.

The Romney plan for Nevada? Mitt Romney will eliminate Obama’s excessive regulations, cut taxes for small businesses, improve education and job training, and create over 100,000 new jobs for Nevada.

DAVID DAMORE: Housing has not gotten a lot of attention here, because it seems to be it’s a little bit — it’s not tractable. No one has come up with a magic bullet. You basically have one party that doesn’t really have a plan, the other that has a plan that doesn’t work all that well.

So, the consequence, even though it’s the thousand — or elephant in the room, or whatever that saying is, you end up with a situation where neither party really wants to talk a whole lot about it.

HOWARD WATTS III, Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada: And, basically, it’s a permanent setback for some of these families.

RAY SUAREZ: That’s exactly what frustrates Howard Watts and is why he hasn’t decided who he will vote for in the fall. Last month, his father was forced to short-sell the home he had purchased in 2008. The value had dropped from $200,000 to $80,000. When he could no longer keep up with his payments, he turned to the federal programs for help.

HOWARD WATTS: My dad tried to get in on programs like HARP and HAMP, and was denied because at the end of the day the servicer could choose whether or not he got in. So, there just hasn’t been enough relief for the homeowners in Nevada and across the country.

RAY SUAREZ: His father’s former house sits in a neighborhood that resembles a ghost town. Many homes have been abandoned by their owners. Other lots sit empty, never developed beyond the poured concrete driveways.

Watts works for the Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada. His organization wants the government to take much stronger action, giving troubled homeowners money to help buy down the principal on their loans.

HOWARD WATTS: Principal reduction is a huge opportunity to help fix the negative equity in the market, put more money back into Nevada’s economy and into other economies across the country.

But that requires taking an extremely aggressive stance against the banks. I think that that’s what we should do. I think that’s what’s just. The banks are the folks that got us into this mess in the first place.

RAY SUAREZ: But in an election year which has seen both candidates avoid talking about specific economic plans, especially ones that will cost more government money, it’s unlikely either candidate will propose any aggressive solutions in these final weeks of campaigning.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Between now and Election Day, we will be visiting other battleground states, including North Carolina, Colorado, Florida, and Ohio.