Housing cheers turn gloomy Long criticized as too upbeat, Realtors' departing economist now sees recession On his way out the door, the housing industry's self-described "cheerleader" is making one last economic forecast -- a sober one at that. "We're in a real estate recession," said David Lereah, chief economist for the National Association of Realtors, who surprised many this week when he announced he would leave the Chicago-based trade group on May 19."I'm projecting the first [nationwide] price drop since the Great Depression," he said. "We're going to have negative home prices in 2007." His comments seemed uncharacteristic for Lereah, whose mostly blue-sky forecasts have long been criticized for stoking the fire as home sales bubbled to stunning -- and unsustainable, even by his own account -- levels. He had been the public face for the Realtors since the housing boom began in 2001. "The media regularly turns to him for real estate quotes," said David Jackson, who created the hypercritical David Lereah Watch blog because he believed the economist was churning the housing market. "Lereah tells half-truths and manipulates facts and figures. He cannot be trusted, as he is a paid shill." "He promotes housing," said Washington economist Dean Baker, an outspoken housing-market bear. "Certainly, people who were making decisions to move, they either heard David directly or from someone who heard from David that home prices will never fall, don't worry, the market will stay strong. So they paid too much for a house." Lereah, in an interview Wednesday, shrugged off the criticism. "I feel confident I did a very good job forecasting and reflected what was happening in the marketplace," he said."But the Realtor, the lender, the title attorney, they all got wrapped up in the frenetic pace of the boom," Lereah said. Lereah is leaving the Realtors to head a new subsidiary of Move Inc., which operates online real estate services, including the industry's most popular site, Realtor.com, for the NAR. He and others in the company declined to discuss the venture until it debuts in August.But first he has one more public appearance, at a Realtors' conference in Washington. He warns that his speech will not be cheery."I am going to say, look, guys, we all have to face the music," Lereah said. "We strayed from [economic] fundamentals, and we're paying for it. It's not an all-out bust, not a crash in real estate, but it is a recession. This is going to cleanse the markets and in the long term this is what we have needed." In characteristic cheerleader style he demurred when asked whether he ever felt pressure from within NAR to skew forecasts in a positive direction."You'll have to talk to me about that in two or three weeks," Lereah said. "I work for NAR now."