Walking back Pawlenty’s Islamic home ownership program

Former Gov. Tim Pawlenty — or at least his spokesman — talked tough today when it was suggested an Islamic-friendly home mortgage program in Minnesota might put him at odds with his conservative base.

“Pawlenty hasn’t shied away from throwing red meat to the conservative base,” Adam Serwer wrote in the progressive journal The American Prospect. “He’s told his share of birther jokes and even argued in favor of reinstating discrimination against gays and lesbians serving in the military. Thus far, he’s avoided indulging in growing conservative enmity toward Muslims, but because of his own perfectly defensible efforts to expand homeownership in Minnesota, he may be vulnerable to such attacks from other candidates. Pawlenty’s shot at the 2012 nomination may hinge in part on his ability to tamp down conservative paranoia on Islam rather than stoking it.”

The program in the Pawlenty administration attempted to assist Muslims who wanted to purchase homes. But Islamic law forbids the paying or charging of interest. The Minnesota Housing Finance Agency worked with the African Development Center, to set it up.

As described in MPR’s original story two years ago:

The state buys a home and resells it to the buyer at a higher price. The down payment and monthly installments are agreed to up front at current mortgage rates.

The deal is identical to a thirty-year fixed-rate loan, except there’s no additional interest, because the higher up front price factors in payments that would have been made over the life of a traditional mortgage.

The political blog, Politico, picked up on the assertion that the program makes Pawlenty look like he was coddling Islam, generating a tougher response from the former governor’s spokesman.

“This program was independently set up by the Minnesota state housing agency and did not make any mention Sharia Law on its face, but was later described as accommodating it,” the spokesman, Alex Conant, said. “As soon as Gov. Pawlenty became aware of the issue, he personally ordered it shut it down. Fortunately, only about three people actually used the program before it was terminated at the Governor’s direction.”

Pawlenty’s objection: “The United States should be governed by the U.S. Constitution, not religious laws,” Conant said.

Is that what really happened? A program was a little too friendly toward Islam and had to be shut down? Not exactly.

“The new markets program was running for about a year and it happened at the same time a credit crunch hit the country,” Megan Ryan, a spokesperson for the Minnesota Housing Finance Agency, told MPR’s Jess Mador today. “The program had only three loans. There was a lot of interest, but many of the borrowers weren’t credit ready. In conversations with the governor’s office at the same time that the program wasn’t being very successful, we did close the pilot program down and shift the funds to other loan programs.”

Ryan said had there been better interest, “we would’ve looked at continuing the program, there was such limited volume, we thought it better to shift to programs that reached more Minnesotans.”

She said the state had put about $8 million into the program. “We try to be one of the more cutting-edge housing finance agencies across the country. We looked at this, we tried it, and when we didn’t see the volume, we put that money back into a different program.”