On Friday, January 27, President Obama followed up on a promise made in his State of the Union Address by creating a new working group to aggressively investigate the abuses that triggered the housing crisis. We know that President Obama means business because he chose New York Attorney General (AG) Eric Schneiderman--a champion for taxpayers and homeowners--to lead this unit focused specifically on lending fraud and mortgage abuses. True accountability is necessary to restore the public's faith in our national housing system. With Schneiderman and his team in place, the time has come for state AGs to bring their ongoing negotiations with mortgage servicers over the robosigning scandal to a successful conclusion.
The 18 months since the robosigning scandal first broke have not been kind to Hispanic homeowners or the housing market in general. Latinos have lost 66% of their wealth thanks to the foreclosure crisis; this will leave lasting effects on their retirement and ability to finance their children's education. Home values have dropped by as much as a third since 2006 and more than ten million families owe more than their home is worth. Most of the federal efforts to stave off foreclosures have come up short, largely because participation was voluntary for banks and servicers. A strong AG settlement is critical for those homeowners who sought relief, played by the rules, but still fell through the cracks of servicer bureaucracy.
Details of a $25 billion robosigning settlement have begun to emerge and if the reported details are accurate, there is much to celebrate. One of the most important aspects of the settlement is the approximately $17 billion for principal reductions. Writing down principal has long been recognized as being one of the most effective tools for keeping families in their homes. When compared with the costs of foreclosure, property maintenance, and a sheriff's sale for pennies on the dollar, it's a win for banks, neighborhoods, and families alike. Yet servicers have not made it a priority. Not only could the settlement compel them to embrace principal reduction, but when coupled with Friday's announcement of major incentives to servicers--including loans owned by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac--it may be just what we need to break the logjam on write downs.
Reportedly the settlement also allots $2-$3 billion to the states for housing counseling, legal aid, and victim's assistance. Housing counseling has been one of the most successful foreclosure prevention programs to date, but inexplicably Congress eliminated its funding for 2011. Approximately $45 million was reinstated for fiscal year 2012, but the demand for service far exceeds this amount. Housing counseling is available free of charge to any family facing foreclosure. This invaluable service gives families a real alternative to scam artists peddling false promises to the tune of $5,000 or more.
Clearly, $25 billion is not enough to repair all of the damage done to our homes and the economy, but that is why the robosigning settlement is only part of the solution. One of the most important deals struck in the negotiation is on the releasing of future legal claims. This means that the AGs and the Department of Justice can continue to pursue civil rights, origination, and securitization claims. In fact, the financial crimes task force, investigations underway by AGs in California, Nevada, and Massachusetts, and the Department of Justice's landmark settlement with Countrywide give us every reason to believe that the march toward accountability is off to a good start. The robosigning settlement should be the next step. It is time to deliver the first installment of relief for homeowners that have not a moment to lose.