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Housing fix has strong enemies

The federal government and the banking industry have failed to bring mortgage relief to homeowners in need. Richmond's plan to use eminent domain would help fill the void.

August 30, 2013|Michael Hiltzik
  • Banks argue that the Richmond initiative is unnecessary because they already do their utmost to reach out to struggling homeowners. Above, protesters hold a banner outside Wells Fargo headquarters in San Francisco last month.
Banks argue that the Richmond initiative is unnecessary because they already… (Rohan Smith, San Francisco…)

One way to judge the virtues of the city of Richmond's initiative to use eminent domain to help its strapped mortgage borrowers is by the hysterical reaction of the banks and investors holding the mortgage loans.

Wells Fargo & Co. and Bank of New York have sued the East Bay city in federal court to throttle the plan even before its birth. (A court hearing on their request for an injunction is set for Sept. 13.)

They've enlisted federal regulators in their hand-wringing over the damage little Richmond (pop. 105,000) might wreak on the mortgage market nationwide. The real estate interests have even cajoled some of their housebroken congressmen, such as John Campbell (R-Irvine), into introducing legislation to stop Richmond in its tracks.

So there must be something to the city's idea.

A lot of flapdoodle has been pumped into the public consciousness about Richmond's plans, most of it from the financial sector. It says Richmond is planning to seize underwater mortgages from lenders by condemning them by eminent domain for low-ball prices. It says there's no precedent for using eminent domain for the city's stated purpose of arresting blight — it's just for building things like schoolhouses and highway onramps. This is all about "the misuse of public power for private benefit," to quote Bank of New York's lawsuit.

But that's not quite true. It's really all about the failure of the federal government and the banking industry to bring desperately needed mortgage relief to homeowners wrecked on the shoals of the housing crash — many of them steered onto the rocks by unscrupulous mortgage bankers.

The government's major program for mortgage relief, the Home Affordable Modification Program, has served only 20% to 25% of the 5 million homeowners it was designed to assist. Richmond is stepping into a genuine vacuum.

It's also about arresting a slide in Richmond's economy. "I want to stabilize our neighborhoods," says Patrick Lynch, the city's housing director. "I know what a blighted property costs us to board it up and send the fire department out on calls."

You may think Richmond's effort is outdated. After all, home values are rising again and the foreclosure wave is ebbing. That's true generally, but the trend has passed Richmond by. In the city, which is 40% Latino and 25% black, more than half the homeowners are still underwater — their homes are worth less than they owe on their mortgages — by an average of 45%.

Richmond's goal is to bring some financial relief to those homeowners. They're prime candidates for relief, because the deeper underwater a loan is, the greater the chance that it will end up in default and then foreclosure.

It's well understood in the housing industry that the most effective way of staving off these defaults is to cut the principal due on the loans to a figure bearing some rational relationship to the home's value.

The toughest mortgages to work out, according to Richmond officials and their financial advisors, are those held in securitized pools, which can be owned by hundreds of thousands of investors; banks that service those pools tend to be uncertain about their legal authority to modify those mortgages unless they're right on the verge of foreclosure, so they tend not to be proactive.

So Richmond's City Council voted to offer banks servicing mortgage pools a deal: The city would buy underwater mortgages. Then, with the help of the San Francisco investment firm Mortgage Resolution Partners, the mortgages would be extinguished and refinanced so their balances would come to about 95% of the homes' current market value, on average. They'd no longer be underwater, and the risk of default would be much lower.

The targeted loans should meet two criteria, according to Robert Hockett, a Cornell University law professor who originated the idea of backing up mortgage refinancings with eminent domain. They should be loans so deeply underwater they're at high risk of default, "so their value can actually be increased by writing down the principal balances," he told me. Second, they should be loans that are hard to write down voluntarily, because of the questions about the loan servicers' authority to do so.

The city's eminent domain power plays a dual role in this initiative. First, it's a threat: If the banks refused to deal with the city, the mortgages could be seized. But it's also a tool: It removes all legal doubt about the banks' authority to sell or modify the loans; they would be required to do it.

Richmond started the ball rolling July 31 by making an offer to Wells Fargo and other servicing banks for 624 loans with unpaid balances totaling about $242 million. More than two-thirds had the oddball features that made for toxic loans during the housing crash — adjustable rates, negative amortization, interest-only payments.

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