Thursday, Feb. 7, 2008

Fannie Mae a growth leader in Urbana

250-employee operations center contributes to region

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Two-and-a-half years ago, Employees at Fannie Mae’s new Urbana Technology Center quickly learned that working for the first major corporate presence in a new development meant lunchtimes can be tough.

With no nearby eateries in its first months of operation, many of the 250 data specialists toted their lunch to work while others, such as vice president of technology Brian Cobb, trekked 15 miles up Interstate 270 to Frederick. Finally, a Waffle House opened across the street within walking distance.

‘‘It was heaven,” Cobb said.

Since Fannie Mae’s 247,000-square-foot Urbana Technology Center opened in August 2005 on 35 acres off Route 80, employees have welcomed the influx of new restaurants offering lunch options. A Dunkin’ Donuts, 7-Eleven, Babao Asian bistro, Subway, Foster’s American Grill and a Giant Food — complete with a salad bar — have all opened, and more restaurants are on the horizon.

Fannie Mae’s operating center, along with the proliferation of nearby eateries, retailers and offices, is an indication of the area’s growth in the past few years.

‘‘It’s been exciting to watch,” Cobb said. ‘‘A big part of Fannie Mae’s mission is helping to build communities. We thought Urbana would be a good place to be. The community can grow with us and we can grow with the community.”

The Urbana center’s employee base has remained at roughly 250, or about 10 percent of the company’s total workforce of 2,500. The center’s major advances have been in technology upgrades, Cobb said.

‘‘Because technology is constantly changing, we have to constantly reforecast our [growth plans],” Cobb said. ‘‘Obviously, we want to last in this building a long time.”

Fannie Mae, with headquarters in Washington, D.C., has had no major job cuts or growth in Urbana, and has no immediate plans for either, Cobb said. The building, which earned certification from Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design for its eco-friendly design, was planned to accommodate a 10-year growth period so portions of the building are unused.

Local youth leagues have been using fields on adjacent pad sites that are reserved for long-term growth with more buildings. Meanwhile, the Urbana employees have been heavily involved with volunteering with local nonprofits such as the Red Cross and Frederick Habitat for Humanity, said Fannie Mae spokeswoman Amy Bonitatibus.

Limit may be raisedon ‘jumbo’ mortgages

The mortgage finance company, along with Freddie Mac in McLean, Va., may see its loan purchase amount limit temporarily increased by Congress under a proposed economic stimulus package. The plan includes a provision that would allow both government-sponsored companies to purchase mortgage loans up to $730,000, up from the current limit of $417,000. Mortgages above that amount are considered ‘‘jumbo” loans and carry higher interest rates. Some observers say that raising the cap will help ease the housing market slowdown.

‘‘If policymakers choose to raise the loan limit, we are supportive and committed to doing what we can to help,” Bonitatibus said.

Indirectly, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac are the largest sources for U.S. home loans. They do not issue home loans directly to buyers; instead they boost and stabilize the housing market by helping banks finance more home loans. Though they are government-sponsored organizations, they do not enjoy backing of government funds.

Analyst Moshe Orenbuch of CreditSuisse said Fannie Mae, which recently weathered an accounting controversy and anticipates significant fourth-quarter losses, probably won’t greatly benefit from raising the jumbo mortgage limit.

‘‘This is not about what the administration can do for Fannie Mae; it’s about what Fannie Mae can do for the market,” Orenbuch said last week. ‘‘It’s not clear how much extra business Fannie Mae will get.”

Locally, Stephen Mackintosh of Mackintosh Realty in Frederick said he hopes the proposed cap increase, plus recent interest rate cuts, will help move the some of the 2,000 homes on the market in Frederick County.

‘‘Lenders are going to be tightening up their standards and it’s going to be tougher to qualify” for home loans, Mackintosh said. ‘‘But this market will turn around.”

Rep. Roscoe Bartlett (R-Dist. 6) of Buckeystown, who supported the House-passed stimulus package, backed the change in the mortgage policy for its potential to revive demand in housing, said his spokeswoman Lisa Wright. The 6th District includes Garrett, Allegany, Washington, Frederick and Carroll counties, plus portions of Montgomery, Baltimore and Harford counties.

‘‘It will restore confidence in the housing market, increase the availability of mortgages and better reflect home values in the 6th District,” Wright said of Bartlett’s sentiments.

James B. Lockhart, director of the Office of Federal Housing Enterprise Oversight, which oversees Fannie Mae, disagreed, saying the adjustment lacked the stricter oversight it needed.

‘‘We are very disappointed in the proposal ... as we believe it is a mistake in the absence of comprehensive [government-sponsored entity] regulatory reform,” Lockhart said in a statement. ‘‘To restore confidence in the markets, we must ensure that the GSEs’ regulator has all the necessary safety and soundness tools.”

Fannie Mae’s Urbana Technology Center

250 employees

Opened in August 2005 in 247,000-square-foot building

Fannie Mae finances one of every five U.S. homes

Current loan purchase limits: $417,000

Proposed temporary loan purchase limit: $730,000

2007 third-quarter losses: $1.4 billion

Anticipated losses for fourth quarter: $2.25 billion to $5 billion

Source: Fannie Mae, U.S. Securitiesand Exchange Commission, Credit Suisse