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Key states move closer to foreclosure-abuse deal
by Derek Kravitz - AP Economics Writer
Feb 06, 2012 | 879 views | 0 0 comments | 4 4 recommendations | email to a friend | print
WASHINGTON (AP) — California and New York, the key holdouts in a long-awaited settlement over foreclosure abuses, moved closer Monday to backing a deal that would force the five largest mortgage lenders to reduce loans for about 1 million households.

But those states, along with a handful of others, had not joined the settlement by a Monday deadline set by the nation’s state attorneys general. And a deal might not be finalized for days.

California still has “significant sticking points,” but they may be settled in the coming days, said officials with direct knowledge of the negotiations. That represents progress from a few weeks ago, when California Attorney General Kamala Harris called the proposed settlement “inadequate.”

The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they weren’t authorized to discuss the settlement publicly.

“I’m less concerned with the timeline than the details,” Harris said in a statement Monday.

Negotiators were working well into Monday night to see if they could persuade more states to join the settlement, an official said. There is growing optimism that California, New York, Delaware, Nevada and a few others will eventually sign on.

Homeowners in states that opt out of the deal wouldn’t share in the settlement money. The money available to homeowners could run as high as $25 billion if all states approve the deal.

The reduced loans would benefit homeowners who are behind on their payments and owe more than their homes are worth. The lenders would also send checks for about $2,000 to hundreds of thousands of people who lost homes to foreclosure.

The five lenders — Bank of America, JPMorgan Chase, Wells Fargo, Citigroup and Ally Financial — have already agreed to the settlement. In settling the charges, the states would agree not to pursue further investigations against the banks in civil court. The deal would not protect the banks from criminal investigations.

The few states that have resisted the deal have expressed concern that it would limit their ability to take action against the banks for any past wrongdoing that turns up later.

California’s backing is particularly crucial. It was among the states hardest hit by the foreclosure crisis. And it has the most residents “underwater”: They owe more on their loan than their home is worth. Without California’s participation, the money available to homeowners nationally would be about $19 billion rather than $25 billion.

The settlement has been toughened in recent days to allow states to pursue lenders who mistreat borrowers in the future. Fines could run as high as $5 million per violation.

Under the deal, the mortgage principal for about 1 million homeowners would be written down by an average of $20,000. An additional 750,000 Americans — about half the households eligible for aid under the deal — would receive about $2,000.

David Stevens, CEO of the Mortgage Bankers Association and a former Obama administration housing official, said the deal would ease lending restrictions for new loans and aid homeowners at risk of foreclosure.

“This will have a role in providing certainty to the (financial) markets about credit being eased and homeowners getting some money back,” Stevens said.

Still, several housing and community organizations have complained that the settlement wouldn’t go far enough.

George Goehl of the National People’s Action, a collection of community housing groups, said $25 billion for homeowners would be a “paltry down payment,” considering that roughly 11 million homes are underwater by a combined $750 billion.

“Anything less than $300 billion is a win for the 1 percent that lets the banks off too easily and falls short of helping both middle-class families and communities targeted most by big bank fraud,” Goehl said.

But if California and New York agree to the deal, other holdouts, including Arizona and Nevada, would likely follow suit.

“My office is continuing to review the intricate draft settlement terms and advocating for improvements to address Nevada’s needs,” Nevada Attorney General Catherine Cortez Masto said in a statement.

Delaware might not. Attorney General Beau Biden has said he still has concerns about the settlement “as currently constructed,” he said in a statement.

“We are continuing to review the complicated documents that we received a week ago, and are continuing to advocate for improvements to address our concerns,” Biden said.

The settlement would end a painful chapter that emerged from the 2008 financial crisis, when home values sank and millions edged toward foreclosure. Many companies that process foreclosures failed to verify documents. Some employees signed papers they hadn’t read or used fake signatures to speed foreclosures — an action known as robo-signing.

The agreement also promises to reshape long-standing mortgage lending guidelines. It would 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.

The settlement would apply only to privately held mortgages issued from 2008 through 2011. Banks own about half of all U.S. mortgages — roughly 31 million loans.

The deal is subject to approval by a federal judge.

Associated Press Writers Randall Chase in Dover, Del., Michelle Price in Phoenix, Ken Ritter in Las Vegas, Donald Thompson in Sacramento, Calif., and Michael Virtanen in Albany, N.Y., contributed to this report.
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