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Federal Housing Chief Supports California Bill of Rights

The series of bills backed Attorney General Kamala Harris to help avoid future foreclosure abuses have found a new supporter in federal housing chief, Shaun Donovan.

The so-called California Bill of Rights “would restrict practices such as foreclosing on homeowners as they try to negotiate a loan modification and mandate that banks designate a single person to work with troubled borrowers,” as reported by the Los Angeles Times.

The financial-industry and business trade groups have opposed the bills, arguing that while the national mortgage settlement’s terms are temporary and apply to only five banks, the bills’ changes would be permanent and universal. In fact, the proposed California Bill of Rights provides longer term protection for homeowners where the national mortgage settlement expires.

Those who oppose the bills also object to giving borrowers the right to sue to block foreclosures or recover losses when banks violate the law in more than just a trivial way. We feel strongly that banks should not be able to take advantage of distressed homeowners and ignore their rights in any way during the foreclosure process. The national mortgage settlement does not acknowledge individual borrowers whose lenders violate the new safeguards but the proposed California Bill of Rights provides a remedy to that.

Foreclosures hold steady

The imminent wave of foreclosures has still yet to strike with new numbers out from Lender Processing Services, Inc. showing that March foreclosures have stayed steady. The new data from LPS also shows that are still down from March 2011.

69,000 foreclosures were completed in March, compared to 85,000 in March 2011 and 66,000 foreclosures in February 2012.

The Los Angeles Times reports: “About 1.4 million homes, or 3.4% of all homes with a mortgage, were at some stage in the foreclosure process last month, the same as in February but down slightly compared with 1.5 million in March 2011, Santa Ana research firm CoreLogic said.”

The rate of foreclosures has slowed since last year during accusations of faulty practices and improper paperwork by lenders. Experts have predicted that foreclosures are expected to rise again since the  national settlement was reached in February. However, there has been little uptick in the number of foreclosures which could be a result of the national mortgage settlement that pushes lenders to work with troubled borrowers to avoid foreclosure.

The California Homeowners Bill of Rights

April 20, 2012 Leave a comment

California Attorney General Kamala Harris has been working since earlier this year on a package of bills to help protect homeowners from foreclosure and wrongful foreclosure practices by banks.

The so-called California Homeowners Bill of Rights was to be put to vote by the California Assembly’s Senate Banking and Finance Committee on Monday. However, Chairman Mike Eng (D-Monterey Park) of the Assembly Banking and Finance Committee asked that debate be postponed for a week in an effort to amend the bills so a compromise could be reached during negotiations with consumer groups and mortgage bankers.

In a press release issued by the Office of the Attorney General, the provisions of the bills were outlined and were aimed at making sure that homeowners are not put on a so-called dual-track process that allows banks to continue a foreclosure process at the same time they are negotiating possible loan modifications.

According to the Huffington Post,

“Other provisions in the bundle require banks to provide homeowners with a single point of contact during the loan modification process and levy a $25 fee on banks every time they register a default. Proceeds from the default fee would then go into a pool of money funding mortgage fraud investigations.”

While some of the provisions outlined in the proposed Bill of Rights overlap with the national mortgage settlement, the settlement expires in three years and Harris wants the rules to extend into perpetuity.

Harris has support from many political leaders on the proposed Bill of Rights, including San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee, as well as dozens of consumer, fair-lending and economic justice organizations, but faces opposition by mortgage bankers, bankers, credit unions and the financial industry.

New Rules to Fight Foreclosure

April 16, 2012 Leave a comment

Last week, Congress mandated changes in the rules covering the mortgage servicing industry.

According to the Associated Press, “The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau‘s proposed rules would require mortgage servicers to give all borrowers standardized monthly statements and warn borrowers about interest rate or insurance change.”

The proposed rules also require the mortgage servicers to make “good-faith efforts” to contact borrowers at risk of foreclosure and give them options to avoid losing their homes and also include stipulations for improving record-keeping and providing foreclosure counseling to those who need it.

The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, which supervises U.S. payday lenders, mortgage companies and private student lenders and also can write rules to supervise big lending companies and institute fines, will formally propose the rules this summer and finalize them by January 2013.

Principal Reductions: A Cure to the Crisis?

April 12, 2012 Leave a comment

After much debate, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac will decide by the end of this month whether they will allow principal reductions on mortgages they back.

Fannie and Freddie have resisted calls to write down the balances on the loans in their portfolio, saying it would be too costly for taxpayers as the mortgage giants are government-controlled companies, regulated by The Federal Housing Finance Agency.

At the core of the debate is Ed DeMarco, acting director for the agency, who has said principal reductions would amount to an expensive taxpayer bailout of troubled homeowners. According to CNNMoney.com, the agency had originally decided against allowing principal reductions after internal studies showed that alternatives such as adjusting monthly payments or forbearing principal were more cost effective.

The Obama administration, however, has tripled the incentives it will pay to Fannie and Freddie for reducing principal under the Home Affordable Mortgage Program, or HAMP and has forced the agency to reconsider.

As reported on CNNMoney.com, Fannie and Freddie have about 3 million loans that are seriously underwater, according to company filings. But three-quarters of these homeowners are current on their payments and may not qualify.

The number of eligible underwater Fannie and Freddie loans could range from a few hundred thousand up to 750,000, according to estimates – a fraction of the total 11 million underwater borrowers in the U.S.

However, there is still debate on if this will fix the housing crisis.

While some economists state that this could be helpful in aiding the crisis, some experts still fear that allowing principal reduction will open a new wave of strategic defaults, where homeowners decide to stop paying their mortgages in order to benefit from modification programs.

Plus, at the end of the day, taxpayers will still be paying for principal reductions – whether taxpayer money comes from HAMP or from the open line of bailouts Treasury provides to Fannie and Freddie.

Foreclosure Settlement Finalized, Now What?

April 11, 2012 Leave a comment

The $26 billion foreclosure settlement between the nation’s five largest banks and attorneys general from 49 states and the District of Columbia was finally finalized by a federal judge on Thursday.

The settlement aims to make it possible for roughly two million borrowers to see a significant reduction in their mortgage payments with principal reductions for underwater borrowers, refinancing on some mortgages to lower interest rates and compensation to those who lost their homes due to improper foreclosure practices.

CNNMoney.com has a complete list of provisions the banks agreed to and has outlined what it means to you, the homeowner.

As reported by CNNMoney.com, the main provisions include:

  • The banks and servicers have committed at least $17 billion to reduce principal for borrowers who 1) owe far more than their homes are worth 2) are behind on payments. The amount of principal reduction will average about $20,000 per borrower in the cases of four of the banks. The Bank of America reductions will be even steeper, averaging $100,000 or more, according to spokesman Rick Simon.
  • Another $3 billion or more will go toward refinancing mortgages for borrowers who are current on their payments. This will enable them to take advantage of the historically low interest rates that are currently available.
  • The banks will pay $5 billion to the states and the federal government, the only hard money involved in the deal. Out of that fund will come payments of $1,500 to $2,000 to homeowners who lost their homes to foreclosure. Other funds will be paid to legal aid and homeowner advocacy organizations to help individuals facing foreclosure or experiencing servicer abuses.
  • Another $1 billion will be paid directly by Bank of America to the Federal Housing Administration to settle charges that its subsidiary, Countrywide Financial, defrauded the housing agency.
  • The exact amount of the payments will depend on how many people participate in this part of the settlement. They will share equally in a pool of $1.5 billion. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development expects about 750,000 former homeowners to take part.
  • In addition, the banks agreed to eliminate robo-signing altogether and to use proper and legal procedures when putting homeowners through the foreclosure process. They also agreed to end servicer abuses, like harassing delinquent borrowers for payments, and to include principal reductions more often in their mortgage modifications programs.

Which banks are participating?

Bank of America, Wells Fargo, JPMorgan Chase, Citigroup and Ally Financial are taking part in the settlement.

Loans owned or backed by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac are not part of the deal nor are loans insured by the Federal Housing Administration eligible.

If I take the money, what rights do I give up?

Individual borrowers do not give up any right to sue.

As part of this deal, state attorneys general gave up the right to sue the mortgage servicers for foreclosure abuses arising out of the robo-signing scandal. However, they reserve the right to sue — or press charges for criminal behavior — if they uncover improper acts when the loans were originated or when they were securitized.

Would I have to pay taxes on the principal reductions or the pay-outs?

If the principal is reduced in 2012, it will not be subject to income tax.

That’s because the Mortgage Debt Relief Act of 2007 allows taxpayers to exclude income from the discharge of debt on their principal residence. The act is scheduled to expire at the end of this year, however.

So if the act is not extended and the principal reduction occurs in 2013, borrowers may be on the hook to pay taxes on the settlement amount.

It’s not clear whether you would have to pay taxes on the $1,500 to $2,000 payout. The IRS declined to comment on the question.

Check out further details about the settlement at CNNMoney.com

Homeowners fight and win against the banks to avoid foreclosure

March 20, 2012 Leave a comment

Fed up with bank procedures, more homeowners are turning to legal action in court to get the mortgage debt relief they need.

In 2008, Jewel Miser and her husband Jack began trying to get Bank of America to modify their mortgage. Jack had lost his job and the couple was a month behind in their mortgage payments. Fed up with getting the run around by the bank and running into dead ends, the couple sought legal aid to help them in their quest to get a loan modification and avoid foreclosure.

As MSNBC reports, more and more homeowners are finding success taking their case to court to get new loan terms as the Misers did. Their lawyer successfully challenged the shaky paper trail on which the lender relied on to prove it owned the Miser’s note. In the resulting settlement, the bank agreed to new loan terms that cut the Miser’s monthly payments by roughly 15 percent, paid their legal fees and stopped the foreclosure.

According to MSNBC:

“When these homeowners get to court, they find a laundry list of shoddy practices that undercut lenders’ legal claim to foreclose, say consumer attorneys who have pursued these cases. Many cases are tainted by “robo-signers” who failed to properly review files, despite swearing under oath they had done so. Other title claims are undone by improper accounting, including unwarranted fees, and payments that were not credited.

Consumer attorneys also are attacking lenders’ effort to paper over missing links in the chain of documents required to prove that a bank owns a loan and has the right to foreclose. Some of those defective paper trails date to the sloppy underwriting that accompanied the frenzy of mortgage lending in the 2000s, when hundreds of now-defunct lenders churned out a blizzard of notes that were instantly offloaded to investors.

Lenders’ disregard for the law is still rampant, according to consumer advocates and regulators. Last month, a survey of 260 consumer attorneys in 45 states by the NCLC found that thousands of homeowners were improperly foreclosed on in just the past year. In more than 80 percent of the cases, the lender scheduled a foreclosure sale while processing a loan modification. In four out of five cases, the attorneys reported, lenders failed to properly credit payments or wrongly claimed homeowners owed bogus fees.”

While it’s not a new practice for borrowers to take their disputes with lenders to court, rising frustration with other means of trying to get a loan modified is a major deciding factor in the current housing crisis. Banks encourage homeowners to work directly with lenders through government-sponsored programs, aimed at providing mortgage relief to millions of borrowers which have fallen far short of promises.

One program that has severely underperformed expectations is the government’s Home Affordable Modification Program (HAMP) which leaves the final decision to modify a loan entirely with the lender. Because the government does not enforce HAMP on lenders, homeowners are being denied modifications that should have been made under government guidelines, forcing homeowners to take legal action.

MSNBC reports:

“That often means a trip to bankruptcy court for a Chapter 13 proceeding, which allows people with a regular income to adjust their debt. Once in court, a foreclosure is typically halted automatically, placing the burden on the lender to have the process re-instated. That forces the lender to prove it owns the mortgage and to account fully for any disputed back payments. When the lender is unable to do so, consumer lawyers say, it is more likely to agree to settle by modifying the loan terms, often by simply lowering the interest charged to current market rates.

Lenders rarely forgive principal, even on homes that are deep underwater, say consumer attorneys. But while bankruptcy law prevents a judge from writing down the primary mortgage on residential property, other loans don’t enjoy that protection.”