Foreclosures impact CNMI homeowners

Posted on Sep 30 2008

As families on America’s mainland continue to lose their homes amid a national foreclosure crisis, the CNMI apparently is suffering from a gradual foreclosure meltdown of its own linked to the region’s economic downturn.

Statistics on foreclosures in the CNMI are hard to find as government officials have acknowledged that none of them keep track of the issue. However, real estate agents and other observers are reporting that a gradual upswing in the rate of foreclosures has emerged in recent years that is distinct from the turmoil seen now in the housing market of the continental United States.

“We’ve got foreclosures going on right and left here but it has nothing to do with the U.S.,” said Timothy Goodwin of Pacific Rim International, a local real estate company that deals with some foreclosed properties. “It’s the economic troubles. There aren’t as many jobs out there. People can’t afford their mortgages and then even when they go looking to sell their homes, they find out that the market value is less than the mortgage itself.”

Saipan’s real estate market has long suffered amid the CNMI’s economic woes with rental prices, for example, dropping significantly and some landlords even offering free rent in the first several months of a lease to attract new tenants. Most of the houses selling, Goodwin noted, are being sold for less than replacement costs.

And amid this decline, many homeowners are struggling to keep pace with mortgage payments, most of them on lowest rung of the economic ladder.

“The economy is in bad shape right now and a lot of the people seeing these foreclosures are on the fringes,” said one foreclosure expert, who noted much of Saipan’s real estate market, like the rest of the CNMI’s economy, also depends on support from foreign investment, which has waned in recent years.

Goodwin’s office now has several foreclosed properties under its control and he expects many more could be on the horizon should the market worsen.

“This has kind of been a gradual thing but there’s definitely a lot more coming through,” he said.

A problem for many local homeowners that is remotely tied to the housing market woes on America’s mainland, Goodwin added, is the toll that the nation’s foreclosure crisis has taken on banks that provide home loans. Some, he said, have become more conservative in their lending practices, meaning that homeowners often cannot obtain the loans they need to save their houses.

“And with property prices being so depressed, the banks will sometimes only loan you a percentage of the appraised value,” said Goodwin. “So with appraisals coming in really low, people can’t get as much money as they might necessarily need.”

One controversial measure to revive the housing and real estate market, he added, might be to remove restrictions under Article 12 of the local Constitution that limit the right to own land in the CNMI only to people of Northern Marianas descent. Combined with an economic revival, Goodwin said this change—an issue that could come before local voters in the near future—may improve property values and improve conditions in the housing market.

However, an informed observer said the odds that the constitutional provision will be overturned are very low.

“It’s not going away,” he said. “It’s too engrained in the popular psyche for folks here to lose it.”

On the mainland, the number of home foreclosures rose 12 percent nationwide in August to record highs due to a jump in bank seizures, according to data from the investment firm Merrill Lynch.

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