Foreclosure, Mortgage Fraud Settlement Announced

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Eric HolderWASHINGTON — U.S. states reached a landmark $25 billion deal Thursday with the nation’s biggest mortgage lenders over foreclosure abuses that occurred after the housing bubble burst.

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The deal requires five of the largest banks to reduce loans for about 1 million households at risk of foreclosure. The lenders will also send checks of $2,000 to about 750,000 Americans who were improperly foreclosed upon. The banks will have three years to fulfill the terms of the deal.

It’s the biggest settlement involving a single industry since a 1998 multistate tobacco deal.

Federal and state officials announced at a news conference that 49 states had joined the settlement. Oklahoma announced a separate deal with the five banks.

The settlement ends a painful chapter that emerged from the financial crisis, when home values sank and millions edged toward foreclosure. Many companies processed foreclosures without verifying documents. Some employees signed papers they hadn’t read or used fake signatures to speed foreclosures – an action known as robo-signing.

Under the deal, the states said they won’t pursue civil charges related to these types of abuses. Homeowners can still sue lenders in civil court on their own, and federal and state authorities can pursue criminal charges.

“There were many small wrongs that were done here,” said U.S. Housing and Urban Development Secretary Shaun Donovan. “This does not resolve everything. We will be aggressive about going after claims elsewhere.”

Reducing loan principal will help some homeowners who are current on their payments but are “underwater,” meaning they owe more than their homes are worth.

But consumer advocates and housing activists said the deal is flawed because it covers only a fraction of at-risk homeowners. Critics note that the settlement will apply only to privately held mortgages issued from 2008 through 2011.

Banks own about half of all U.S. mortgages – roughly 30 million loans. Those owned by mortgage giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac are not covered by the deal.

“The deal announced today is too small,” said Pico National Network, a faith-based group that is active on housing issues. “It falls far short of providing real justice for homeowners and American families.”

Economists also cited the size of the deal: Some said it was hardly enough to have much impact on the troubled housing market.

The settlement will be overseen by Joseph A. Smith Jr., North Carolina’s banking commissioner. Lenders that violate the deal could face $1 million penalties per violation and up to $5 million for repeat violators.

About $10 billion of the settlement total will be used to reduce mortgage payments for underwater homeowners. Paul Diggle, an economist at Capital Economics, said that’s a “drop in the ocean,” considering that 11 million borrowers are underwater “to the tune of $700 billion.”

Mark Vitner, a senior economist at Wells Fargo Securities, said the settlement helps the housing market in the long run because it allows banks to proceed with millions of foreclosures that have been stalled. Many lenders have refrained from foreclosing on homes as they awaited the settlement.

“We’ve got a lot of issues to work our way through in the housing market,” Vitner said. “What this settlement does is allow that process to get started.”

Bank of America will pay the most to borrowers as part of the deal – nearly $8.6 billion. Wells Fargo will pay about $4.3 billion, JPMorgan Chase roughly $4.2 billion. Citigroup will pay about $1.8 billion and Ally Financial will pay $200 million. Those totals do not include $5.5 billion that the banks will reimburse federal and state governments for money spent on improper foreclosures.

The deal also ends a separate investigation into Bank of America and Countrywide for inflating appraisals of loans from 2003 through most of 2009. Bank of America acquired Countrywide in 2008.

“The settlement includes far reaching relief that will help many of our customers and complement our already extensive efforts to improve our borrower assistance efforts and servicing processes,” JPMorgan Chase said in a statement.

Under the deal, banks must make foreclosure their last resort. They are also barred from foreclosing on a homeowner who is being considered for a loan modification.

The banks and U.S. state attorneys general agreed to the deal late Wednesday after 16 months of contentious negotiations.

New York and California came on board late Wednesday. California has more than 2 million “underwater” borrowers, whose homes are worth less than their mortgages. New York has some 118,000 homeowners who are underwater.

In addition to the payments and mortgage reductions, the deal promises to reshape long-standing mortgage lending guidelines. It will make it easier for those at risk of foreclosure to make their payments and keep their homes.

Those who lost their homes to foreclosure are unlikely to get their homes back or benefit much financially from the settlement.

Some critics say the proposed deal doesn’t go far enough. They have argued for a thorough investigation of potentially illegal foreclosure practices before a settlement is hammered out.

Under the deal:

- Roughly $1.5 billion for direct payouts, in the form of $2,000 checks, for about 750,000 Americans who were unfairly or improperly foreclosed upon; another $3.5 billion will go directly to states.

- At least $10 billion for reducing mortgage amounts.

- Up to $7 billion for other state homeowner programs.

- At least $3 billion for refinancing loans for homeowners who are current on their mortgage payments but who are underwater.

The deal is subject to final approval by a federal judge.

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