WASHINGTON — For more than 20 years, Mark Vinciguerra's small bank specialized in making home loans to first-time buyers in the Toledo, Ohio, suburbs. Then the recession hit, and auditors at Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac came knocking.
The mortgage giants demanded he buy back more than 200 loans he'd sold them that were teetering into foreclosure, claiming the bank had failed to meet their quality standards. Vinciguerra ultimately repurchased only five loans, but endless hassles over the others shattered his willingness to take a chance on some moderate- and low-income borrowers.
''Like so many lenders, we thought: 'Heck, we're just going to raise the bar,''' said Vinciguerra, who insisted the loans went bad because of skyrocketing unemployment. ''We'd like to be serving those people again, but there's no trust in the system right now.''
Just as the housing recovery should be taking off, lenders are turning away potential buyers by demanding unusually high credit scores for government-backed loans — exceeding the government's own criteria in a bid to insulate themselves from penalties and lawsuits. The reluctance to lend has alarmed policy makers and heightened tensions between them and lenders.
The White House has summoned banking executives for a meeting Sept. 17, frustrated that its many pleas to ease lending criteria have not been heeded.
But lenders say the mixed messages they're getting from Washington give them no incentive to widen access to credit. The government, determined to prevent a repeat of the irresponsible lending practices that sparked the housing bust, has forced lenders to buy back billions of dollars in loans and continues to trumpet massive legal settlements with the industry. The largest came two weeks ago when Bank of America agreed to pay $17 billion to resolve claims that it sold the government defective mortgages.
''The mortgage industry is basically ticked off,'' said Guy Cecala, publisher of the trade journal Inside Mortgage Finance.
The situation is untenable for lenders, said David Stevens, president of the Mortgage Bankers Association. It's also creating a homeownership opportunity gap.
''It's very clear that the proverbial 1 percent, the wealthy American who wants to buy a home, is going to get credit,'' Stevens said. ''It's some of the average entry-level or move-up buyers who are getting boxed out.''
Fannie, Freddie, and the Federal Housing Administration collectively own or back nearly half of all US mortgages, Inside Mortgage Finance says. None of them makes loans, though they are critical to making mortgages widely available.
Fannie and Freddie buy loans from lenders, package them into securities, and sell them to investors. For a fee, they guarantee the mortgages and then pay investors if the loans default. The FHA insures the lenders it works with against losses if loans go bad.
But housing experts say the government's push to hold the industry accountable for loose lending in the past is unintentionally steering lenders toward the highest-quality borrowers, undermining the institutions' mission to serve the broader population, including moderate- and low-income families.
''What we have now is a system, because of tight lending standards, that is excluding far more borrowers who are going to succeed than fail,'' said Barry Zigas, at the Consumer Federation of America.
Industry insiders say the administration could help by encouraging regulators to ease up. Lenders should be held accountable for the type of fraudulent activity that took place before the housing crisis, such as falsifying documents or faking tax returns, they say. But they argue the government should not be scouring loan files for minor errors.
Industry insiders also argue for clearer rules governing when Fannie, Freddie, and the FHA can take action against a lender. Many lenders said they had been asked to buy back loans or reimburse the government for losses even when their lending practices had nothing to do with the loans' default.
Bill McCue, president of McCue Mortgage Co. in Connecticut, said investors routinely refuse to buy FHA-insured mortgages if the borrowers have credit scores below 640, even though the FHA typically permits scores as low as 580.
There are 13 million potential borrowers with scores between 580 and 640, yet FHA-backed loans to people below the 640 threshold were basically nonexistent last year, according to an analysis by the Urban Institute.
''Are the lower-credit-score borrowers a little more risky than someone with an 800 credit score? Certainly,'' said FHA Commissioner Carol Galante. ''But this is how families get into the middle class and succeed.''