Op-Ed: Building the Goal of Increasing Minority Homeownership

By Lindsey Johnson, President of USMI

As we celebrate Black History Month, it is important to remember why the mortgage and housing finance systems need to focus on Black homeownership. Owning a home helps to increase financial security, enhance family and community stability, and build intergenerational wealth. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the Black and Hispanic homeownership rates stand at 43 and 48 percent, respectively, compared to 74 percent for white households. Many have noted that this racial gap has alarmingly increased even after the Fair Housing Act was enacted in 1968, when explicit racial discrimination was legal. While the industry has focused on ways to decrease this racial gap, more needs to be done.

To better identify and highlight the greatest homebuying challenges for today’s borrowers, U.S. Mortgage Insurers (USMI) conducted a national survey last June. The National Homeownership Market Survey found that Black respondents are more likely to perceive greater challenges during the homebuying process, with credit scores, existing debt, and the inability to afford a down payment identified as the main obstacles. Nearly 60 percent of Black respondents said they spend more than 30 percent of their income on housing and are more likely to worry about making housing payments. Meanwhile, white respondents are three times more likely to say there are no barriers to homeownership.

In addition, nearly 70 percent of all survey respondents said that the lack of affordable housing was the top homebuying challenge. As home prices continue to soar while available inventory remains limited, stress surrounding the desire to purchase a home among minorities is likely to rise. According to the Federal Housing Finance Agency’s (FHFA) House Price Index, house prices rose 17.5 percent in 2021. Further, the National Association of REALTORS® Confidence Index Survey found that first-time homebuyers’ share of the market fell to 26 percent, and nearly 1 million renter households were priced out due to rising home prices.

The persistent racial gap needs to be addressed and we should work to speed up efforts to put sustainable homebuying within reach for more Americans. Fortunately, this challenge has the attention of housing and mortgage finance experts and policymakers, including FHFA Acting Director Sandra Thompson. As the conservator of the government-sponsored enterprises’ (GSEs), Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, FHFA released a Request for Input (RFI) on Equitable Housing Finance Plans and included equitable housing as a pillar in its draft 2022-2026 Strategic Plan.

In its RFI, FHFA articulated a framework by which the GSEs will be required to prepare and implement three-year plans to advance equity in housing finance. FHFA’s actions are commendable, but the details on how to address access to homeownership matter. This is why USMI urged FHFA to use data-driven, targeted approaches to reduce barriers to affordable mortgages for minority households.

The issues facing minority and other underserved borrowers are complex, multi-faceted, and vary by geography. Addressing them means being very specific about identifying the borrowers being served, their specific issues, and target outcomes. Further, there should be consistency in how the government and GSEs approach initiatives related to access to home financing. These initiatives should aim to increase sustainable access to credit for borrowers that need assistance the most, while also reducing credit risk. Whether it’s FHA or FHFA, policies should also aim to not stoke additional demand into the marketplace, further driving up prices, which acutely impacts low- and moderate-income borrowers.

A few key areas that the housing industry and policymakers should focus on are: 1) affordable housing production; 2) financial and homeownership education and outreach; and 3) a holistic review of GSE pricing, including reexamining 2008-era Loan-level price adjustments (LLPAs), which disproportionately impact minority borrowers.

Lastly, there should be greater transparency around the GSEs’ credit policies, underwriting technologies, and performance in key areas, most notably access to credit for minority households. The data and other factors that contribute to decisions that impact the GSE credit box should be publicly available to better inform policies and mortgage products around access to credit. Increased transparency will encourage greater collaboration among policymakers and industry participants and promote policies that can bring a balance between supply, demand, and affordability.

Minority homebuyers represent those who will increase the rate of homeownership in America in the coming decades. As an industry that exclusively serves homebuyers with limited access to funds for large down payments, we believe the issues and challenges facing these borrowers today will require significant collaboration to ensure they have access to sustainable, affordable financing.

This piece was first published in The Hill on February 25, 2022.

Article: Home Prices Fuel Push to Revive Mortgage Insurance Tax Break

A Law360 article by David van den Berg reports on legislative efforts to restore the federal tax deduction for mortgage insurance premiums. USMI President Lindsey Johnson was quoted as saying, “With [the] expiration [of the MI tax deduction], millions of hard-working, middle-class homeowners wouldn’t have access to this benefit that puts money back in the pockets of those who need it the most, at a time when inflation is raising the cost of virtually all goods and home price escalation continues.”

To read the full article, please click here. (Subscription may be required)

Op-Ed: We must increase access to affordable mortgages for minority borrowers

By: Lindsey Johnson

Homeownership has been on the rise over the past few years even during the COVID-19 pandemic, but a deeper look at who is able to become a homeowner reveals significant racial and economic gaps. With a growing recognition in Washington of this disparity and a renewed focus on increasing financial security for Black and Hispanic families, policymakers and industry have the opportunity to correct inequities and sustainably increase minority homeownership.

U.S. Census data for the third quarter of 2020 show that homeownership among White households stands at nearly 76 percent, compared to nearly 51 percent for Hispanic households, and 46 percent for Black households. Meanwhile, of the minority borrowers who qualified for home financing, many encountered added costs that make homeownership disproportionately more expensive or altogether out of reach.

COVID-19 has further compounded the racial and economic gap as millions of low- to moderate-income families have lost their jobs and face financial insecurity. The Urban Institute finds that Black and Hispanic homeowners are significantly more likely to face financial hardships and are more at risk of not being able to pay their rent or mortgage payment due to the impacts of the pandemic.

So, while we must focus on the pandemic and its impact on borrowers, and particularly minority borrowers, we must also not lose sight of addressing the longer-term systemic issues that unnecessarily increase costs or create barriers for minority borrowers. Importantly, expanding homeownership opportunities for minority borrowers does not have to be at the expense of the reforms made over the last decade that have drastically improved lending to protect consumers and avoid another housing market collapse. The housing finance system can remain stable and manage mortgage credit risk prudently, while also using data-driven, targeted approaches to reduce barriers to affordable mortgages for Black and Hispanic households.

Mortgage affordability could be further stressed once new regulatory mandates are implemented. This includes new capital requirements for Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac (the GSEs) recently finalized by the Federal Housing Finance Agency (FHFA). While it is essential that the GSEs hold appropriate capital, the rule must be balanced and policymakers should consider changes to elements of the final rule that threaten to raise the cost of mortgages for all borrowers and push homeownership farther out of reach for many families of color.

Additionally, policies that adversely drive up costs for minority borrowers should be re-examined and reduced or eliminated. Loan-level price adjustments (LLPAs) that were introduced by the GSEs in 2008 are especially burdensome for minority and first-time homebuyers. These fees are disproportionately paid by borrowers with lower down payments and credit scores, whose mortgages are already protected by private mortgage insurance. Essentially, borrowers are being double charged for the same risk protection. Industry and consumer advocates — including the National Fair Housing Alliance and the Center for Responsible Lending — have long urged the GSEs to reduce or eliminate these redundant fees.

Further, it is critical that policymakers recognize the role of low down payment mortgage options in facilitating homeownership. In fact, more than 80 percent of first-time homebuyers used low down payment mortgage options in the past several years — with options as low as 3 percent down. While these options have prudently enabled millions of people of all backgrounds to become homeowners, even more targeted down payment assistance programs should be considered for borrowers who may not have intergenerational wealth or equity from a previous home to contribute to a down payment. Legislation like Rep. Al Lawson’s (D-Fla.) First-Time Homeowners Assistance Act should be given close consideration when re-introduced in 2021. Meanwhile, President Biden has already expressed interest in a first-time homebuyer tax credit — a very welcome early signal from the new administration.

There are other issues that warrant attention, such as the low supply of affordable housing and lack of access to financial education. This list goes on, and we recommend that the Biden administration assemble a task force that includes broad representation from industry, consumer advocate community, and government to formulate an action plan, build consensus, and get to work.

As an industry that exists to help low- and middle-income households qualify for low down payment mortgages, private mortgage insurers understand the need to balance responsible lending with access to affordable mortgage finance credit. There are tangible and measurable steps to sustainably expand homeownership for minority families and fortunately there is an eagerness across the housing policy sector to achieve these outcomes.

This piece was first published in The Hill on January 30, 2021.

Op-Ed: Low Down Payments Backed by Mortgage Insurance More Important Than Ever

By: Lindsey Johnson

Today, the place you call home matters more than ever. Unfortunately, many Americans continue to believe homeownership is out of reach because they think a 20 percent down payment is needed to qualify for a mortgage.

A recent report by the private mortgage insurance (MI) industry finds that it could take a family earning the national median income over 20 years to save for a 20 percent down payment. But the wait decreases by 67 percent when a five percent down payment is the goal. Fortunately, millions of homebuyers each year qualify for home financing with low down payments.

Given the current economic environment due to COVID-19 and the desire of many people to keep more cash on-hand, low down payment loans are more important than ever. Low down payment mortgages with private mortgage insurance have proven to be a time-tested means for Americans to access affordable homeownership sooner while still providing credit risk protection and stability to the U.S. housing system. It is no wonder why more than 33 million homeowners have used this type of home financing and why its use is on the rise.

The report finds that in 2019, the number of low down payment loans backed by private MI increased 22.9 percent. Over 1.3 million home loans were purchased or refinanced with private MI, up from just over 1 million in 2018. Nearly 60 percent of the borrowers of these loans were first-time homebuyers and 40 percent had annual incomes of less than $75,000.

Why have millions turned to this type home financing?

Let us first take a closer look at a borrower who earns the national median income of $63,179. To save 20 percent, plus closing costs, for a $274,600 home, the median sales price for a single-family home last year, they would need to bring more than $63,000 in cash to the table. It could take up to 21 years to save up this amount based on the national savings rate dedicated towards a mortgage. But if this borrower qualifies using private MI on a five percent down payment mortgage, their wait time drops to just seven years. This type of home financing offers Americans a chance to secure home financing much sooner than previously believed.

Why is 20% the “magic number”?

Data demonstrates that borrowers who make larger down payments are less likely to default on their mortgages than borrowers with lower down payments. Therefore, lenders traditionally require a 20 percent down payment to offer mortgage financing to a borrower. This is where mortgage insurance steps in, providing credit enhancement for the borrower with a lower down payment, and insuring the loan for the lender in the event the borrower stops making their payments. Once the borrower builds 20 percent equity in their mortgage, the insurance can be cancelled, thus lowering the monthly payment. Private MI also helps Americans buy a home without necessarily breaking the bank.

Private mortgage insurance is offered on so-called conventional loans that are backed by the government sponsored enterprises (GSEs), Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. When there is private MI on a loan, the risk protection provided to lenders for making a low down payment mortgage possible is extended to the GSEs too. In the event of a default, the private mortgage insurance stands to cover losses first, meaning private MI also protects taxpayers.

Supporting the American Dream

As the report demonstrates, private mortgage insurers’ role in the low down payment market significantly increased over the last five years. Between 2015 and 2019, private mortgage insurers’ market share in the low down payment lending sector increased from 34.8 percent of the insured market in 2015 to 44.7 percent in 2019, helping millions of Americans qualify for home financing.

Private MI offers a reliable path to the American dream of owning a home. Since 1957, private MI has helped more than 33 million Americans become homeowners while protecting taxpayers. And right now, more than ever, we are even more aware of the benefits of owning a home—from building wealth to creating stability to the importance of having a safe place to call your own.

Lindsey Johnson is the president of the U.S. Mortgage Insurers (USMI), the association representing the nation’s leading private mortgage insurance companies.


Mortgage Professional America originally published USMI President Lindsey Johnson’s opinion piece, “Low down payments backed by mortgage insurance more important than ever” on August 10, 2020. 

Op-Ed: No, The FHA Should Not Be Pushed to the Brink Again

By: Lindsey Johnson


Some hailed the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s annual report on the Federal Housing Administration’s financial status as evidence that the government mortgage insurance program should lower its fees. And they said that FHA should consider expanding its footprint in the housing finance market.

But HUD Secretary Ben Carson made clear that while FHA’s financial health has improved, it should “maintain its focus on providing access to mortgage financing to low- and moderate-income families that cannot be fulfilled through traditional underwriting.”

The FHA serves an important countercyclical role in the housing finance system; however, it is important that policymakers recognize that there is a vibrant conventional market that is able to serve many borrowers and prudently help them access affordable mortgage finance. Further, because FHA-backed mortgages protect 100% of the risk, expanding the FHA would mean expanding taxpayer exposure to that risk. This is simply not necessary.

Indeed, low down payment lending is critically important to the U.S. housing system. It gives many first-time home buyers access to the conventional mortgage market without requiring them to put a full 20% down. In the third quarter of 2019, nearly 80% of first-time homebuyers used these mortgages — 35% of which were backed by private mortgage insurance. With the private sector taking the first-loss risk exposure on these loans, the federal government, and thus taxpayers, are far more protected from mortgage credit risk.

The FHA-insured market and the conventional market should complement one another rather than compete. The conventional market — where the credit risk is backed by private capital — is well positioned to play a bigger role in facilitating access to affordable credit. It can do so without unnecessarily saddling the government or taxpayers with risk.

This better enables the FHA to focus on its mission of supporting those borrowers who do not have access to traditional financing — and to ensure it can play its countercyclical role through all market cycles.

In 2018, conventional loans with private MI helped more than one million low down payment borrowers — nearly 60% of which were first-time homebuyers and nearly 40% had incomes below $75,000. And in the first three quarters of 2019, nearly 47% of insured loans had private MI and the industry supported almost $275 billion in new originations. On the other hand, the FHA has over $1.2 trillion of outstanding risk exposure in 2019, according to the HUD report.

For borrowers, conventional low down payment mortgages with private MI are a good deal, because they are affordable despite a higher loan-to-value ratio and the insurance cancels once 20% equity is built. This results in direct savings for the borrower, compared to the FHA where premiums are typically paid for the life of the loan. Further, according to a recent analysis by the Urban Institute, loans with private MI were more affordable than loans backed by FHA for the majority of credit score and down payment cohorts for low down payment borrowers. And for the housing system these loans are a good deal because compared to FHA-backed mortgages, there is less risk exposure for taxpayers. Plus private mortgage insurers serve as a second set of eyes during the underwriting process to ensure that borrowers are set up for sustainable homeownership.

Instead of asking how FHA lending can be expanded the debate should revolve around prudently making low down payment mortgages in general more affordable and accessible to ensure risk is being managed appropriately. It can be done. Secretary Carson and other regulators have outlined in their recent reform plans ways to promote private capital supporting the housing finance system where possible.

Further the mortgage credit landscape is very different today than it was prefinancial crisis, largely due to new statutory restrictions of mortgage product features and federal regulation. For example, the Qualified Mortgage Rule provides the necessary safeguards for lending and underwriting. These safeguards, including measurable thresholds to assess a borrower’s ability-to-repay, have resulted in much better and safer mortgages being originated. In fact, foreclosure rates are at a 20-year low.

As regulators assess changes to mortgage underwriting requirements, including the expiration of the GSE patch in the QM Rule, these changes should be done in a coordinated manner with federal housing agencies by collaborating to create and implement a harmonized standard that can apply across the conventional and FHA mortgage markets alike to ensure a level playing field. Otherwise, the resulting regulatory patchwork could create arbitrage opportunities, lock some consumers out of the market due to higher costs, and merely shift, rather than reduce, the government’s exposure to mortgage credit risk.

Our housing regulators have a significant opportunity to strike the right balance to ensure that both access and risk are managed throughout the mortgage finance system. Private mortgage insurers understand this delicate balance and look forward to working with them to achieve sustainable levels for each.


National Mortgage News originally published USMI President Lindsey Johnson’s opinion piece, “No, the FHA should not be pushed to the brink again” on December 24. The piece was also published by American Banker.