WASHINGTON -- The Obama administration wants all the credit for a drop in Nevada foreclosure filings even though housing analysts have attributed some of the decline to a state law that took effect this past fall.
While too many Nevada homeowners owe more than their homes are worth or struggle to make their mortgage payments, the situation is improving, Shaun Donovan, secretary of housing and urban development, wrote Wednesday in the Las Vegas Review-Journal.
"Thanks to tools this administration has provided, foreclosure filings throughout the state have fallen 67 percent since last April," Donovan wrote in the op-ed, which coincided with a White House visit by Nevada housing counselors and real estate professionals.
But some of the credit for the decline belongs to a state law designed to root out fraudulent paperwork in the state's foreclosure process. New foreclosure filings plunged 88 percent in October 2011, the first month the law took effect, according to data compiled by ForeclosureRadar.com, a company that tracks foreclosures in Western states. ForeclosureRadar.com President Sean O'Toole said the trend has continued.
"It was absolutely the new law" and not anything the Obama administration did, O'Toole said on Wednesday.
Foreclosure activity declined nationwide following the fall 2010 revelation of the "robo-signing" scandal, in which banks were caught using fraudulent paperwork when they took people's homes away. State attorneys general and the Obama administration launched an investigation that eventually led to a $25 billion settlement with the five biggest banks. Data from RealtyTrac, an online marketplace of foreclosure properties, show that foreclosure activity nationwide in April was down 14 percent from the previous year.
The nationwide slowdown doesn't fully account, however, for the 67 percent fewer foreclosure filings in Nevada (the 67 percent figure is also from RealtyTrac). From February to September 2011, before Nevada's own robo-crackdown took effect, the average year-over-year decline in the state's monthly foreclosure filings was 24 percent, according to RealtyTrac. Since October, the average decline has been 56 percent -- so the law may have more than doubled the rate of decline.
"The extent of the dramatic decreases we're seeing in Nevada are definitely at least in part due to that law taking effect," said Daren Blomquist, a vice president at RealtyTrac.
A spokesman for the Department of Housing and Urban Development acknowledged the administration can't take full credit for fewer foreclosure filings in the Silver State.
"A broad array of tools at the federal, state and local levels have helped families across the country stay in their homes and stabilize the housing market. And in the last year, in states like Nevada, where the housing crisis took the greatest toll, these efforts have begun to bear fruit -- resulting in a 67% drop in state foreclosure filings between April 2011 and April 2012," HUD spokesman Derrick Plummer said in an email. "And while laws like Nevada's AB284 have clearly sped that progress, the evidence is equally clear that more than half of that drop in Nevada occurred prior to the law's enactment. No one program or initiative is solely responsible."
The Donovan op-ed is not the first time the Obama administration has helped itself to more credit than it probably deserves on housing. Its signature mortgage modification program has not delivered the 3 to 4 million modifications that President Barack Obama said it would, yet the administration has claimed the program inspired more than 2 million modifications that banks did on their own, for a total of more than 4 million modifications since 2009.
Though foreclosures have declined in Nevada, the state remains the most foreclosure-ridden in the United States. O'Toole of ForeclosureRadar.com doesn't consider fewer filings something to brag about when 61 percent of Nevada mortgage holders owe the bank more than their homes are worth, according to CoreLogic, a mortgage data firm.
"It's fair to say, 'What benefit are they gaining by reducing foreclosures instead of addressing negative equity?' Why would they even tout reducing foreclosures?" O'Toole asked.
Plummer, the HUD spokesman, said the administration knows "there is more work to do, including Congress needing to pass the President's proposed refinancing proposal. As we demonstrated with the joint federal/state $25 billion mortgage servicing settlement, when we work together -- across partisan and geographic lines -- we are still capable of doing big things for the American people."
In his op-ed, Donovan also trumpeted the $25 billion settlement, a portion of which will go toward reducing principal for underwater homeowners. But it will be a drop in the bucket given that Americans collectively owe $700 billion more than their homes are worth.
"Talk about completely worthless," O'Toole said.