Nevadans Air Housing Worries in Primary Season

The Las Vegas real estate market has turned from boom to bust in short order; Nevada now has the highest foreclosure rate in the nation. Given its new status as an early caucus state, Nevada voters expect presidential candidates to offer solutions to the problem.

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The increase in mortgage foreclosures is a topic of the presidential campaign in Nevada. The state's caucuses are January 19th, among the nation's earliest. Nevada's foreclosures are the highest in the nation, with one out of every 165 mortgages facing foreclosure.

NPR's Jeff Brady reports from Las Vegas, where the housing boom has gone bust.

JEFF BRADY: Look past the flashy exterior of Las Vegas - the lights, the Elvis impersonator, the woman in the convertible with the Christmas tree poking out the backseat - look past all of that and what you see are a lot of for sale signs. Stop people on the street and you're sure to meet someone like Paul Walker(ph). He owns a real estate company and he's worried about the housing market in Las Vegas. He wants a president who will do something about it.

Mr. PAUL WALKER (Real Estate Business Owner): I think a lot of it has to do with the financing. And if people could finance, they would buy houses. So if other things could be done to make financing easier particularly for lower-end buyers, I think that in itself would get them started.

BRADY: The housing slowdown has rippled through the economy here. Furniture stores are having a tough go of it and sales tax revenues are down. That's prompted Governor Jim Gibbons to propose across-the-board cuts in the state budget even to schools. Critics of the plan recently held a candle-light vigil outside Bonanza High School west of The Strip.

Parent Lisa May Dereso(ph) wants schools exempted from the cuts. She also wants to hear presidential candidates talk about the issues important to her - education, health care, immigration.

Ms. LISA MAY DERESO (Parent): And the economy. You know, we have a high foreclosure rate at this time. So how do we get our, you know, keep our families in their homes, keep our kids educated and keep their health care system so everybody has equal access to health care?

BRADY: Las Vegas residents don't seem quite used to the idea that the economy has soured. They're accustomed to boom times says Rory Reid. He chairs the Clark County Commission and he's the son of Senator Harry Reid.

Mr. RORY REID (Chairman, Clark County Commission): The economy here has been dynamic for many years. Ten people move here every hour and have for over a decade. So people are used to seeing their wages increase, the value of their homes increase. We kind a hit a little bump in the road and it's got everyone's attention.

BRADY: Commissioner Reid chairs Hillary Clinton's Nevada campaign. He says she's asking lenders to freeze interest rates on all those adjustable-rate mortgages. John Edwards says he'd make such a freeze mandatory. And Barack Obama called for a new tax credit and government fund to help homeowners. Republicans haven't talked about the issue much. They're not campaigning in Nevada like the Democrats are.

Las Vegas Review-Journal columnist Erin Neff says even at the Democratic events, voters surprisingly don't bring up the foreclosure issue. She suspects that those directly affected aren't showing up to campaign rallies.

Ms. ERIN NEFF (Columnist, Las Vegas Review-Journal): If you're struggling to pay your mortgage, if you're struggling to stay in your house or if you've been foreclosed on and you're trying to get your house back, you don't have time to follow the issues.

BRADY: And for everyone else? They see an end to the bust. While the housing market is off, the commercial real estate market is strong.

(Soundbite of passing vehicle)

BRADY: The Las Vegas skyline is crowded with construction cranes. Thirty billion worth of new buildings are going up, thousands of new hotel rooms. That means more jobs and employees who have to live somewhere. A report from a homebuilders group predicts the housing surplus will be gone within two years and the city will once again have a shortage.

Jeff Brady, NPR News, Las Vegas.

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