Why did President Obama talk housing on Zillow?

President Obama had a chat on Zillow.com about housing issues Wednesday. He's trying to generate interest in the topic in D.C., but critics say he had other motives.

Matt York/AP
President Obama speaks about housing Tuesday in Phoenix. He participated in an online chat about housing issues on Zillow.com.

President Obama has “slow jammed” the news on Jimmy Fallon’s talk show and appeared in an “Ask Me Anything” session on the social media forum Reddit. But on Wednesday he made one of his most unusual media appearances yet, answering questions in a live on-line chat on the real estate database Zillow.com.

The chat was hosted by Zillow CEO Spencer Rascoff. It followed Mr. Obama’s Tuesday speech on housing issues, in which he outlined a number of specific proposals, including the winding down of government-backed mortgage giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.

On Zillow Wednesday, Obama said he’d like to get a package of housing measures through Congress as soon as possible, and that the government should not be in the business of underwriting and guaranteeing most US mortgages, as is now the case.

“The private market can step in and do a good job, and government can be a backstop,” said Obama.

Obama added that mortgage rates remain low by historical levels, and that he and first lady Michelle Obama would likely benefit from refinancing their South Side Chicago home.

“I would save some money,” said Obama in response an online question. “When you’re president you have to be a little careful about these transactions so we haven’t refinanced.”

According to financial disclosure forms cited by the Associated Press, the Obamas currently have a 5.625 percent 30-year fixed loan on their Chicago domicile. Current market rate for a similar loan is 4.5 percent, according to the AP.

Obama complimented Zillow itself. The firm, among other things, uses open government data to produce home value estimates.

“I think you guys have done a great job in helping to make consumers more empowered when they are buying a home, selling a home, and it’s a wonderful service,” Obama said.

OK, so how did Zillow land this presidential publicity bonanza? As the tech website GeekWire notes, “The interview is a huge coup for Zillow, which ... is in the midst of a huge brand building campaign.”

Well, connections, for one thing. As the right-leaning Examiner notes Wednesday, Zillow co-founder Lloyd Frink has long been an Obama supporter, and joined a “Tech Leaders for Obama” coalition in November 2007.

And when it comes to campaign contributions, Zillow employees seem to have a Democratic tilt. A search on the political money database Open Secrets shows that individuals connected to Zillow donated $183,945 to political party committees and candidates in the 2012 election cycle. Virtually all that money went to Democrats.

Of the $183,945 total, $50,000 went to the DNC Services Corp., an arm of the Democratic National Committee. The top candidate recipient of Zillow-linked cash was Sen. Maria Cantwell (D) of Washington, who got $19,500. President Obama received $15,600.

But it’s important to put this in context: that’s not really very much money, in political terms.

Zillow remains a gnat in terms of housing-related political spending. The National Association of Realtors (NAR) gave $4.1 million to party committees and candidates in the same time period.

Forty-four percent of this money went to Democrats, according to Open Secrets data, and 56 percent went to Republicans.

The big Realtors group was defensive about Obama’s Zillow chat, saying in an internal news communication to members that it was “not a serious public policy discussion.”

Because NAR lobbies extensively on public policy issues, the White House could not realistically involve them in the online discussion. “Zillow has no such conflicts, since they are a housing entertainment website,” sniffed the NAR.

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