Changing the Way We Help Underwater Homeowners

This opinion piece by LeeAnn Hall originally appeared in the Seattle Times.

By LeeAnn Hall and Will Pittz

While the recession officially ended in 2009, there are still over 9 million households across the country with homes worth less than the value of their mortgage. There are still neighborhoods in Seattle where more than 20 percent of homes are underwater.

How many more Seattle families need to lose their homes in the foreclosure crisis that continues year after year? There are solutions, but they need champions, and leadership – both locally and nationally.

Advocates are pushing the Seattle City Council to pursue a local principal reduction program to reset the value of mortgages based on their current market value. That local action can help thousands of homeowners in Seattle, but it must include strong buy-in from the City Council and include mechanisms to encourage big banks to participate. Proposals are outlined in a recent report by Reset Seattle and the Alliance for a Just Society.

Thankfully, members of the City Council are making progress. The council commissioned a short study on the feasibility of principal reduction in Seattle, and council members have publically expressed their intent to pursue a program similar to one in Oregon. This action comes too late for homeowners who have already lost their homes, but it can still help many families throughout the city with underwater mortgages.

While Seattle is making slow progress, other families throughout the country also need champions. Leadership was expected from Mel Watt, the recently appointed director of the Federal Housing Finance Agency (FHFA).

For more than 20 years, Mel Watt served the people of North Carolina as a member of Congress. During that time, he earned a reputation of being on the side of working families in his district, including those who were struggling to make ends meet. Watt advocated for struggling homeowners, co-sponsored mortgage reform, and promoted affordable housing.

However, as director of FHFA, Watt has done an about-face. While he once urged the president to enact principal reduction, he has done nothing to take steps within his power to make that assistance a reality. Such steps would not even require congressional approval.

It’s too late for millions of homeowners across the country, it’s not too late for leaders at the local and national level to step up and take action for those homeowners still struggling.

The foreclosure problem hasn’t gone away; the need for assistance remains critical in Seattle and nationally, especially in urban neighborhoods and among people of color. In many cases, these mortgages were the result of predatory lending practices in the years leading up to the market’s collapse.

By not acting, Watt is making matters worse. Local leaders on the Seattle City Council are considering a great step to help homeowners in Seattle and especially communities of color, as in the International District and Delridge, that still have high rates of underwater mortgages. However, both local and national action must happen soon before more families lose their homes.

It’s time for Seattle to move quickly toward a local principal reduction program, and it is well past time for FHFA Director Watt to remember the work that landed him in the nation’s capital and take action to help homeowners.

LeeAnn Hall is executive director of the Seattle-based Alliance for a Just Society. Will Pittz is executive director of Washington Community Action Network

Bank of America Settlement Could Fund Principal Reduction Programs

Screen shot 2014-09-24 at 3.43.37 PM
Reset Seattle members listen as homeowners facing foreclosure ask Seattle City Council members to enact a principal reduction program to help them save their underwater homes from foreclosure. Photo: Reset Seattle

It has taken six years and dozens of lawsuits and settlements after the largest housing collapse since the Great Depression – and finally we may have a way to set up and implement local principal reduction programs in cities across the country.

September has brought us what is expected to be the last of the big settlements by the Justice Department against the big banks. The good news is that the settlements have grown progressively larger each time, with more and more specificity regarding how the banks must comply.

On the flip side, however, there are the murky oversight mechanisms that present challenges for municipalities and community groups looking for a handle.

In the latest settlement Bank of America is required to provide $2.5 billion in principal reduction where foreclosure is not pursued. Additionally, they’re required to pay $50 million to capitalize local programs administered by local governments, Community Development Financial Institutions or other community organizations.

This is ready-made for the proposal the Reset Seattle coalition is working to implement. Reset Seattle is an alliance of hundreds of individuals and more than 30 faith, community, and labor groups in Seattle dedicated to stopping the foreclosure crisis.

The Bank of America settlement money could create a revolving loan fund that is designed purchase underwater homes in zip codes that are particularly hard hit – such as those in southeast Seattle where 15 -20 percent of homes are underwater and homeowners haven’t felt the recovery the way parts of the city have.Screen shot 2014-09-22 at 12.02.24 PM

Seattle must seize this opportunity to demand Chase, Bank of America and Citibank meet their settlement obligations by funding principal reduction proposals, like the one proposed in Seattle. This seems like a perfect fit for everyone – the banks meet their obligations, the city doesn’t have to issue bonds to capitalize the program and underwater homeowners in the city get their principal reduced saving hundreds of dollars every month.

In her latest brief on principal reduction, Alliance Policy Associate Allyson Fredericksen writes that “many other cities are already taking action to give banks the incentive to renegotiate mortgages and work with homeowners to avoid foreclosure”

Some of those incentives, according to Fredericksen, include instituting fees to encourage mediation, to issuing fines for blight on foreclosed homes, to releasing reports on banks’ actions in the community. Such actions put the responsibility on banks to act without putting additional pressure on homeowners.

Seattle should learn from other cities, and lead the way in helping homeowners, without requiring those stretched and stressed homeowners to negotiate with banks on their own.

Unfortunately as we’ve seen time and again since the housing market collapsed, common sense rarely wins out and unnecessary suffering is inflicted to score an ideological point. Hopefully the stars have finally aligned

You can read the Bank of America settlement here.

You can read the details of the Community Relief section here.

 

Progressive Cities Can Offer a Helping Hand to Families Facing Foreclosure

Foreclosures and high numbers of underwater homes aren’t making headlines around the country the way they were a couple of years ago, but that doesn’t mean the housing market is back on solid footing – or that people are no longer suffering.

Thousands of families in Seattle are still dealing with the traumatic repercussions of the housing crash – wrecked credit, lost wealth, and relocation. Housing advocates, like Reset Seattle, are working with cities and public agencies to come up with creative ways to help homeowners.

Reset Seattle is asking the City of Seattle to use their power of eminent domain to buy underwater homes at fair market value, and then sell them to the current owners, at the current market price. It’s an innovative idea that just might help someone like Seattle high school teacher Betsy Andrews, who is hanging on to her home by a thread.

Betsy Andrews of Seattle has tried every avenue to try and save her home.
Betsy Andrews of Seattle has tried every avenue to try and save her home.

After being laid off from her job as an English teacher because of budget cuts, she worried that she wouldn’t be able to make the payments. Terrified of losing her house she called banks, worked with supposed-loan modification services, and spent hours and hours on the phone getting the run around. One “specialist” even told her the way to save her home was to “go get a job.”

“It is humiliating,” she recently told a Seattle City Council Committee that is hearing options for helping families facing foreclosure to save their homes.

Finally, after 18 months without work, Andrews is teaching again and sighing with relief that she would be able to keep her house. But within days, she came home to a “Notice of default. Intent to accelerate” notice from the bank on her front door.

“I consider myself well-educated and pretty savvy,” said Andrews. “This has been an absolute nightmare navigating the system. It has affected my health. The reality is, if I lose my home, I will never be in a position to buy a house again.”

Despite the heart-breaking stories, Seattle homeowners like Andrews are unlikely to get help anytime soon from the City of Seattle.

This week, the Interdepartmental Team (IDT) created by the City to review strategies for helping families, including using eminent domain, made its first report to the council committee.

The results were pretty disappointing.

What they presented during a two-hour meeting Wednesday (that you can watch here) was a half-hearted attempt to perform their assignment. They painted a rosy picture of the Seattle housing market that runs drastically counter to what organizers, advocates – and homeowners – are seeing in the community.

What was their alternative solution? More outreach to put people into the federal government’s HARP (Home Affordable Refinance Program) and HAMP (Home Affordable Modification Program). In the past two years, those two programs have helped a mere 125 homeowners in Seattle. They have caused many others unbearable misery.

Reset Seattle invited city council members on a bus tour of homes and communities blighted by foreclosure.
Reset Seattle invited city council members on a bus tour of homes and communities blighted by foreclosure.

“More outreach isn’t going to help people,” said Chris Genese with Washington Community Action Network and Reset Seattle. “Throwing more energy at the same programs that aren’t working – isn’t the answer. We need to do something else.

“I am disheartened the Interdepartmental Team didn’t mention, any real options,” said Genese. “Our interest from the beginning has been finding avenues for principle reduction, to keep families in their homes, and to restore wealth – particularly in communities of color.”

Reset Seattle is open to other creative options. Boston Community Capital bought homes at short sales and auction, then reissued the mortgage to the homeowner at 6.3 percent interest. The program has kept 500 families in their homes so far.  Other cities have implemented other efforts to help homeowners, and protect communities.

While the Seattle’s interdepartmental team didn’t expressly say they were eliminating the eminent domain proposal, they emphasized “significant” legal and logistical barriers that they indicated would outweigh the potential benefit.

Seattle has a reputation as a progressive city. It’s a city built on daring and dreams. It’s a city willing to try something different.

So here’s my advice to Seattle’s interdisciplinary team:  Let’s get creative, let’s be bold, and let’s try this again.

Jason Collette is a national organizer for the Alliance for a Just Society. He specializes in banking issues, especially around foreclosure, payday lending and student debt. Jason@allianceforajustsociety

 

Mile High Showdown with Wells Fargo

Wells Fargo was put on notice last week as Colorado Progressive Coalition (CPC), the Alliance for a Just Society, and community members took their grievances with the Wall Street bank to the streets of Denver. The week started out with a delegation of homeowners, union members, immigrants, and students delivering their set of demands to Western Regional CEO Tom Honig, and vowing to not let up on Wells Fargo until their demands were met.

They made good on that promise when a group of “Robin Hoods” joined CPC on Tuesday to take their money back. The delegation turned in over 300 signatures of individuals, all pledging to take their money out of Wells Fargo. They also pledged to actively work with the City of Denver to ensure that tax dollars would  stay out of the hands of Wall Street.

The next day, 99 letters from occupytheboardroom.com were delivered to both Tom Honig, Western Regional CEO, and Nathan Christian, Regional President, who coincidentally live across the street from one another in a gated community. But snow, gates, and security cameras did not deter Robin Hoods from delivering their message.  Watch what happened here.

On Thursday, homeowners in jeopardy of losing their homes gathered outside the Wells Fargo Center to demand action.  And Wells Fargo responded by locking their doors.  CPC and the homeowners were not deterred and set up a makeshift “Fargoville” outside of the locked doors.  Watching through the windows of the building, bankers looked out on more than 150 protesters. Angered at Wells Fargo’s use of high-interest subprime loans directed at communities of color and “robo-signing” tactics, the protestors demanded that Wells Fargo and other “big” banks put a moratorium on all foreclosures.  In addition, they called on Wells Fargo to pay back home-owners who helped bail them out by resetting mortgages to their true market value.

Vicki Dillard, one of the protesters who is experiencing difficulties with Wells Fargo Home Mortgage after she was a victim of predatory lending, explained the group’s objective was to ensure that home owners are not the ones being blamed for the crisis.

“We are trying to name who the villain is, and that is truly Wells Fargo and the big banks. I believe that we are starting to refocus and get the target back on who the target really is.” Dillard said. “I hope that this motivates people to begin using their voice and to get our elected officials, the law, and hopefully the banks to do some things are on their own.”

Another group of protestors marched from the CPC offices on Santa Fe Drive to the Denver Performing Arts Center where they joined Occupy Denver in a protest at the Colorado Chamber of Commerce’s annual luncheon that featured Tom Donohue, CEO of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. Both groups are vehemently opposed to the U.S. Chambers investment of $750 million over the last 15 years to heavily influence elections and gain corporate-friendly policies for the benefit of the 1 percent. With swelled numbers the group then marched to the Wells Fargo Center to join the homeowners in “Fargoville.”

The week capped off with an action to highlight Wells Fargo’s investments in the two largest private prison corporations – GEO Group and Corrections Corporation of America. CPC, The Alliance for a Just Society, and hundreds of protestors met at the Auroria Campus. Students, dressed as the “Bulls of GEO and Wells Fargo”, were paraded down Main Street in a “prison stagecoach”, and the march continued on to Wells Fargo Center.  The march ended with “Robin Hood” freeing the students and symbolically putting GEO and Wells Fargo in the prison instead.

The Mile High Showdown is just the beginning of Colorado Progressive Coalition and the Alliance’s campaign against big bank greed. To get involved, please go to www.progressivecoalition.org and sign up to become a member of CPC.

Underwater Mortgages and 1 Million Jobs

Today, The New Bottom Line, a coalition co-lead by the Alliance for a Just Society,  released a report detailing a solution to the foreclosure crisis. “The Win-Win Solution: How Fixing The Housing Crisis Will Create 1 Million Jobs” details how we can fix the housing crisis and revitalize our communities and economy if the banks were to lower the principal balance on all underwater mortgages to current market value. Continue reading “Underwater Mortgages and 1 Million Jobs”

Leader of 50 State Foreclosure Probe Tells Struggling Homeowners: “We Will Put People in Jail”

Iowa’s Attorney General Miller also agreed that principal reductions, loan modifications, and compensation for defrauded homeowners are all on his agenda

The lead Attorney General in the 50-state foreclosure investigation, Iowa’s Tom Miller, told homeowners at risk of foreclosure today that he supports a settlement with the big banks that requires significant principal rate reductions, loan modifications, compensation for citizens defrauded of their homes, and criminal prosecutions against big bank executives who broke the law. Continue reading “Leader of 50 State Foreclosure Probe Tells Struggling Homeowners: “We Will Put People in Jail””