A group called the National Fair Housing Alliance has taken the lead in levying sensational bias charges against mortgage lenders, claiming that neglect of REO (real-estate-owned) properties following foreclosure has followed racially discriminatory patterns. It helped negotiate the extraction of $42 million from Wells Fargo, and is pursuing tens of millions in claims against Bank of America and other lenders. NFHA’s claims have routinely been given unskeptical circulation in the press, but now an investigation by Kate Berry and Jeff Horwitz in the American Banker is bringing overdue scrutiny:
The group has disclosed addresses for only a fraction of the properties it alleges the banks have neglected, but a review of those it has released indicates that NFHA regularly misidentified the institution legally responsible for maintaining specific homes. In some cases, it conflated the banks responsible for maintaining properties with those that were simply serving as trustees for mortgage-bond investors. In others, it faulted banks for damage that occurred before they took possession of properties.
Not in dispute is the leverage the NFHA has gained in its dealings with banks from its close ties to supporters in the federal government. Unusual among Washington agencies, the Department of Housing and Urban Development both funds housing discrimination investigations by nonprofits, including by the NFHA, and provides the venue for them to negotiate their claims.
Grants from HUD and Fannie Mae helped get the NFHA and its leader, Shanna Smith, into the profitable business of investigations in the first place. Banks complain without success about Smith’s practice of demanding a deal while withholding the actual identities and addresses of the properties said to be suffering from bank neglect. Now the HUD-brokered Wells Fargo settlement has paid off richly with $30 million+ for the NFHA and its affiliates, the better with which to stir up more complaints. And watch the revolving door spin, amid few qualms arising from conflicts of interest: “Sara Pratt, the HUD official responsible for investigating and resolving the NFHA’s complaints, and who oversaw its settlement with Wells Fargo, is a former NFHA staffer and consultant.” (cross-posted at Cato at Liberty).
The Washington Post splashes an investigative story about the tax lien business, in which outsiders buy up delinquent municipal property tax liens sometimes amounting to mere hundreds of dollars, then roll in lawyers’ fees and costs that can push up the bill into many thousands, eventuating in the foreclosure of family homes. The narrative is less than clear about exactly how the process works, and even leaves the impression that a tax lien purchaser owed, say, $6,000 can walk away with all the proceeds from the foreclosure of a $197,000 house without having to hand any of it over to mortgage holders, let alone the original owner. And some of the solutions offered (let’s not allow lien foreclosures on elderly people!) would have unintended consequences that are also, to be polite, underexplained. Still, enough of the story is there that an important general principle comes through: it’s dangerous for the law to put opportunistic actors in a position to run up $450/hour legal fees pursuing adversarial process that might not actually have been needed to vindicate their interests.
“At the risk of losing their homes if they didn’t, scores of Colorado homeowners struggling to avoid foreclosure in the past year were each forced to pay hundreds of dollars in lawyer charges for phantom court cases against them, a Denver Post investigation has found.” In 126 of the episodes, the paper reports, no foreclosure lawsuit was actually filed. Related reporting on allegations against Colorado foreclosure law firms here, here, etc.
Along with the Colorado attorney general, various other law enforcers both state and federal are scrutinizing the billing practices of creditors’ law firms looking for evidence that they’ve been evading the fee and cost reimbursement limits for foreclosures that Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac and FHA prescribe on loans they own, guarantee or insure. [Paul Jackson, Housing Wire via Funnell]
Here’s why: it turns out that many of the major law firms responsible for managing foreclosures for the GSEs also have a controlling interest in the ancillary service firms that generate the variable fees that appear as “costs” on the lawyer’s bill. Many law firms either outright own, or their partners have a significant interest in, the company that is posting and publishing notices; or they may own or have an interest in the company that manages process of service, as well.
Such arrangements are not illegal, but could land the firms and mortgage servicers in hot water if it develops that they have connived at fee padding by the ancillary firms. (& welcome Above the Law readers). More: Heather Draper, Denver Business Journal (and thanks for quote).
Inspired in part by the work of Cornell law professor Robert Hockett, the city of Richmond, Calif. is planning to 1) use eminent domain to seize private mortgages for considerably less than their actual worth; 2) cut a deal with existing residents of the homes to install FHA mortgages in place of the seized mortgages; 3) use the windfall surplus — derived by paying the private mortgage holders less than the actual value of their forcibly seized holdings — to subsidize the local residents, thus buying their political favor, as well as leaving a goodly sum to pay off the private outfit called Mortgage Resolution Partners that’s pushing the scheme (written up sympathetically in a recent New York Times account).
What could go wrong, aside from to the spirit of the Constitution and the rule of law? Gideon Kanner points out that even California eminent domain law still requires the payment of “fair market value, not some bargain basement figure pulled out of thin air”:
…we believe that not even California courts will stand still for that. Why not? Because under our law, if the condemnor tries to lowball too much, and makes an unreasonable pre-trial offer, it may have to pay the condemnees’ attorneys’ and appraiser’s fees, plus other litigation expenses, on top of the “just compensation” required by the constitutions. And, of course, any diminution in value brought about by the the market’s reaction to the imminence of the condemnation, cannot be considered in determining fair market value. The property has to be valued as if unaffected by the condemnor’s plans or by any preliminary steps taken toward the condemnation. Cal. Code Civ. Proc. Sec. 1263.330.
For other reasons the scheme may prove much more expensive to the city of Richmond and its taxpayers, see Ilya Somin [more, yet more] Other commentary: Matt Welch, Richard Epstein. Earlier here, here, etc.
A natural experiment: Virginia law allows foreclosures to happen rapidly, Maryland law delays them. Which state has bounced back more smartly from the housing crash? [Michael Schearer, earlier]