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Foreclosure reforms may be coming to a head

August 21, 2011

Foreclosure reforms may be coming to a head

Getting banks, investors and borrowers together to work out a solution that benefits them all is the most promising idea to emerge since the housing market first crashed.

We are now in the fifth year of a housing crisis in which more than 3 million Americans have lost their homes to foreclosure, with millions more still at risk.

Every initiative — government or private — to stem the tide of misery has fallen leagues short in the face of continued economic gloom and the intransigence of lenders.

So it’s an odd moment to be identifying glimmers of optimism that solutions to the crisis might finally be emerging. Yet that may be the case.

Over the next few weeks, several initiatives aimed at reforming the foreclosure process, holding mortgage lenders and services accountable for their past abuses, and creating more effective mortgage workouts are coming to a head.

They’re moving sometimes along parallel lines and sometimes at cross-purposes, but they’re moving.

First, some context. The complexity of the foreclosure crisis stems from the process of bundling hundreds of thousands of mortgage loans into securities and selling them to investors.

Typically, banks and other lenders retained almost no financial interest in the mortgages they originated, other than the duty to service them — collect payments and pursue delinquent borrowers, say — for which they received a fee.

Several drawbacks to that system emerged when the housing economy crashed. Because the loans weren’t going to stay on their books, the lenders hadn’t been too careful about whom they lent to and on what terms.

Ownership of the repackaged loans was dispersed among investors, so it’s hard to know even today who the owners are or whether their ownership is properly documented. This has led to further abuses, such as the infamous “robo-signing” outbreak, in which institutions trying to foreclose on mortgages have submitted forged documents attesting to their legal right to do so.

Perhaps the biggest problem is that although the servicers, which include huge banks such as Bank of America and Wells Fargo, are burdened with the responsibility to renegotiate mortgages to keep borrowers out of foreclosure, their authority to do so on behalf of investors is murky.

As a result, though the investor, the borrower and the economy in general benefit if a home is kept out of foreclosure, even if that means its owner makes lower payments than were required by the original mortgage, the servicing banks are leery of renegotiating too aggressively.

The most closely followed remedial effort involves the 50 state attorneys general under the leadership of Iowa Atty. Gen. Tom Miller.

Last March, the group produced a 27-page proposal for foreclosure reforms that drew fire from some consumer advocates for being too lenient — its provisions include mandates that banks comply with state law in dealing with borrowers, as if that’s a novel concept — and from business interests for putting too much pressure on banks to reduce principal balances for homeowners having trouble keeping up payments on homes with values that have fallen below the mortgage balance.
Courtesy of the L.A. Times


From → Homeowners, Sellers

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