The Role of Unemployment Insurance in Keeping People Housed

As further evidence that the foreclosure crisis is coming to a close, July 2014 marked the 46th consecutive month of year-over-year decreased foreclosure activity in the U.S. While Illinois still experienced the fourth highest level of foreclosure activity among the states, foreclosure activity was still down from a year ago, for the 20th consecutive month. As the crisis improves nationally, it is important to assess what has worked and not worked in bringing relief. Federal programs targeting families in distress show a broad reach but perhaps less impact than hoped. And one new study has illuminated how unemployment insurance appears to have played a surprisingly important role in curbing foreclosures during the Great Recession. 

Predictably, the billions of dollars spent to prevent foreclosures through federal recovery programs have had a positive impact. The Home Affordable Modification Program (HAMP) program saved nearly a million households from foreclosure. Moreover, through March of this year, the federal Hardest Hit Fund (HHF) spent $3.6 billion to help over 178,000 households avoid foreclosure. These programs and others such as those funded by Department of Justice settlements directly target families in distress and have made some of the on-the-ground difference communities need. But, while we should continue to make programs like HAMP and HHF available to families at risk of foreclosure, these programs did fall short of their goals and served far fewer families than initially planned.   

A loss of income undeniably impacts a household’s ability to pay the mortgage, but the receipt of unemployment insurance benefits has not previously been considered as a tool for foreclosure prevention. A July 2014 report on a study from the Federal Reserve and the Kellogg School of Management may change that. The study found a direct correlation between a state’s extension of unemployment insurance benefits and a decline in mortgage delinquency and default, and foreclosure-related relocations and evictions. 

According to the study, unemployment insurance benefits in states with higher maximums prevented significant numbers of delinquencies among laid-off workers. Where unemployment insurance benefits were higher, foreclosure-related evictions were cut almost in half. Moreover, federal measures that extended the length of unemployment insurance during the recent recession also prevented delinquencies by similar rates. 

These results underscore the significant role that unemployment insurance can have in preventing unemployed homeowners from losing their homes. The researchers found that, as a result of unemployment insurance extensions between 2008 and 2013, approximately 2.7 million delinquencies were averted, and 1.4 million foreclosures prevented. Thus, unemployment insurance helped more homeowners than other federal foreclosure prevention programs, and should be considered as a key foreclosure prevention strategy. 

The benefits of unemployment insurance don’t end there. The research additionally found that increased unemployment insurance benefits resulted in better credit access for laid-off workers, both in terms of credit availability and lower interest rates. The study also revealed more dramatic benefits to lower-income households, in particular households earning less than $35,000 a year – those individuals just below HUD’s Area Median Income for Chicago, for example, who are more likely to be more housing cost-burdened.

By keeping people housed at all income levels after they lose work, we can reduce reliance and strain on other programs. Since housing, wages, and available income are all interrelated in our economy, an improvement in one arena is likely to have an effect across the board, particularly in times of crisis.

 

Have We Closed the Book on the Foreclosure Crisis? Housing Outlook Improves, But the Senate May Have the Final Say

Boarded up houseJanuary 2014 will mark five years since new home starts bottomed out and foreclosures were at an all time high; over this time entire communities have been decimated and many families have fallen from the middle class. As we head toward this milestone, the Obama Administration’s latest Housing Scorecard shows improvement over a broad range of housing indicators, and state and federal homeowner protections continue to keep homeowners in their homes. These signs of progress are good for the housing market, the job market, and the overall economy. We cannot allow partisan politics to impede further progress. 

A sharp 50% increase in homeowner equity during the first half of 2013 to $9.286 trillion brings homeowner equity back to fourth quarter 2007 levels, according to Federal Reserve data. Meanwhile, steady increases in home prices continue to build that equity. According to the Housing Scorecard, the Federal Housing Finance Agency purchase-only home price index has risen for the last consecutive 19 months. Another indicator, the S&P/Case-Shiller 20-City Home Price Index, indicated gains of 12.8 percent over the past 12 months, its highest level since August 2008. These numbers are very encouraging, especially given an almost 20% spike in 30-year fixed mortgage interest rates during the same time. What this means in real terms is that the economy is stabilizing and homeownership is once again becoming an investment.

Clearly these numbers have been helped by state and federal efforts to protect homeowners from foreclosure. As of August 2013 over 3.8 million loans had been modified by HOPE Now lenders, and over 1.2 million homeowners had received permanent loan modifications to keep them in their homes through participation in HAMP, the federal mortgage modification program created in 2009. That program was extended another two years in May, and is now set to expire on December 31, 2015. States like Illinois are following suit by passing legislation to ensure that homeowners are given a chance to use HAMP before they lose their homes to a judicial sale.  

But to keep homeownership improvements moving forward, real leadership must be in place at the Federal Housing Finance Agency (FHFA).  On October 31, Senate Republicans blocked a confirmation vote of Rep. Mel Watt to lead the agency, leaving it without a permanent director as we enter the new year. This is an important time for the agency, as it continues to reorganize and wind up Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. Stabilization of Fannie and Freddie is key to our nation’s housing market and, ultimately, our economy, as Fannie and Freddie and Ginnie Mae have a piece of about 90% of all home mortgages. And now is the time—with the housing market turning around, Fannie and Freddie’s profits are soaring. Last Thursday the two companies announced that they will pay $39 billion to the U.S. Treasury this year; both companies are close to repaying the amounts they received in their bailouts. 

FHFA should install a leader to guide these companies’ direction now and gain control over this significant sector of the American economy. Let the lessons of the foreclosure crisis be learned.  The Senate should back every effort to improve the housing market, homeownership, and the economy and should install a new leader for FHFA so that we can truly close the book on the housing crisis. 



 

Illinois Senate Bill 56 Signed Into Law, Extending Statewide Support to Illinois Renters in Foreclosure

Renters in Illinois can rest assured that, if their landlords are in foreclosure, a new Illinois law will protect them from unnecessary displacement. Illinois Governor Pat Quinn has signed Senate Bill 56 into law, creating protections for renters that will take effect statewide on November 19, 2013. The new law makes permanent in Illinois many of the key provisions afforded to renters by the federal Protecting Tenants in Foreclosure Act, which is slated to sunset on December 31, 2014. That act came about to finally stop the sudden eviction of tenants from their foreclosed homes, often with little or no notice that the property had even been foreclosed. Illinois's measure means the state avoids a return to the same conditions that led to the PTFA once it expires. As Gov. Quinn explained when he signed the bill, “The foreclosure crisis has been devastating to homeowners as well as many families living in rental homes who are at risk of losing their home due to no fault of their own."

The new law will allow renters who entered into a written lease prior to foreclosure the right to remain in the unit for the entire term of their agreement. All renters with bona fide leases, including oral agreements, will be entitled to a minimum of ninety-days' notice before facing an eviction from foreclosed properties. The law includes an exception for purchasers of property who will use it as their primary residence. Local governments are also trying to protect renters and ensure that properties in foreclosure do not sit idle and vacant, which contributes to neighborhood decline, crime and other problems. In Chicago, the recently passed Keep Chicago Renting Ordinance provides renters of foreclosed properties with the right to continuing occupancy and/or$10,600 of relocation assistance.

Illinois's and Chicago's efforts to protect renters serve as a reminder that this country must preserve and protect rental housing and realize that being a renter of safe, decent and sanitary housing is another part of the American Dream. Indeed, President Obama warned against backsliding into thinking that led to mass foreclosures. "In the run up to the crisis," the President said, "banks and governments too often made everybody feel like they had to own a home... That's a mistake we should not repeat. Instead... let's bring together cities and states to address local barriers that drive up rents for working families."

Connecting the Dots: First Lawsuit Linking Investment Banks to Racial Discrimination in the Subprime Mortgage Crisis

House for saleOn October 15, a landmark lawsuit was filed in the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York against Morgan Stanley for facilitating the production of risky loans that targeted African-American borrowers. The suit, which was filed by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), the ACLU of Michigan, the National Consumer Law Center, and San Francisco-based law firm Lieff Cabraser Heimann & Bernstein on behalf of five Detroit residents and the nonprofit legal aid organization Michigan Legal Services, is unique for two reasons. First, according to the ACLU, the suit is the first to connect racial discrimination to the bundling of mortgage-backed securities. Second, unlike previous lawsuits where the named defendants were subprime lenders that originated the loans, this is the first lawsuit where victims of the subprime lending crisis have sought to hold an investment firm accountable for its role in providing a subprime lender strong incentives to originate risky mortgages.

Specifically, the three-count suit alleges that Morgan Stanley violated the federal Fair Housing Act (prohibiting discrimination in housing transactions and unfair lending practices), the Equal Credit Opportunity Act (banning discrimination for credit transactions such as mortgages loans), and the Michigan Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act (prohibiting discrimination in making or purchasing of loans secured by residential real estate). Plaintiffs contend that Morgan Stanley was the principal financer for the now bankrupt New Century Mortgage Company, providing the funding that enabled New Century to make mortgage loans to borrowers located in Detroit’s African American communities. Morgan Stanley then “dictated” the types of loans that New Century issued by requiring that a substantial percentage of New Century’s loans bear a combination of high-risk terms (e.g., adjustable interest rates that increase significantly after an initial year of low interest rates and prepayment penalties), effectively placing borrowers at an elevated risk of default and foreclosure. Plaintiffs further allege that Morgan Stanley encouraged New Century to abandon standard fair lending practices that focus on whether borrowers can meet their obligations under the terms of the mortgages and, instead, focused solely whether the loans New Century originated could be processed and sold as securities. The complaint also states that an African American borrower was 70% more likely to obtain a high-cost loan from New Century than a white borrower. 

Although the case concerns lending abuses in Detroit, these practices were common among financial institutions and had a disproportionally adverse affect on Latino and African American borrowers across the country. In this past year alone, the Department of Justice has successfully negotiated residential fair lending settlements against Countrywide Financial (now a subsidiary of Bank of America) and Wells Fargo for African American and Hispanic minority borrowers who were steered into subprime mortgages or who paid higher fees and rates than white borrowers because of their race or national origin.

Morgan Stanley has issued a statement that it will defend itself "vigorously" against the lawsuit. If successful, however, this suit could introduce a new avenue of justice aimed at holding investment institutions accountable for their role in helping to craft the lending policies that resulted in the subprime mortgage crisis.

This blog post was coauthored by Stephanie Patterson.

Subprime Mortgage Crisis Widening the Racial Wealth Gap

ForeclosureAmerica has long been experiencing a growing racial wealth gap, however, the 2008 recession and mortgage crisis widened the gap.   

Household wealth is the sum of assets such as a home, car, savings, stocks, etc., minus the sum of debt. The Federal Reserve has released an analysis of U.S. family finances that showed that racial and ethnic minorities lost about a third of their net worth from 2007 to 2010. Overall, median family worth dropped from $126,400 to $77,300 in just four years, and medium income dropped 7.7%. This dramatically unbalanced wealth disparity is the largest since the government began collecting and documenting the data over 25 years ago. The racial wealth gap is twice the size it was 20 years before the 2008 recession.

A recent Pew research study explains that decreasing home values are the main cause for the decline of household wealth among minorities, hitting Hispanic and black families the hardest. The Pew study also showed that homeownership rates are highest for whites and lowest for blacks; in between are Hispanics, who experienced the greatest decline in the homeownership rate, from 51% to 2005 to 47% in 2009. A leading cause of the decline in homeownership was the foreclosure crisis.   

During the housing boom, there seemed to be loans for anyone who wanted them, but for some these loans came at a high cost. The boom enabled a boost in homeownership in minority neighborhoods because of the availability of risky loans at high interest rates. As the bubble burst, borrowers defaulted on these loans, and home prices fell at record rates. Investigations into the cause of the housing collapse revealed that many mortgage companies were discriminating against minority borrowers or otherwise engaging in suspect practices. SunTrust, for instance, was sued for charging African American and Latino borrowers significantly more than white borrowers with similar credit backgrounds for loans in Atlanta. The judge in that case called the lender's actions a “racial surtax.”

The recession also had a trickledown effect on other important aspects of families’ financial health, especially their credit scores. A foreclosure can remain on a credit report for up to seven years and drop a credit score by 86-160 points leaving a lasting scar on one’s financial well being. A low credit score, in turn, can limit a person’s ability to get a job and increase the interest rates one pays for loan products. According to FICO, nearly 50 million people saw their scores drop more than 20 points at the height of the financial crisis, and over 15 million people’s scores dropped 50 points in 2010-11. A low credit score due to a subprime mortgage, foreclosure, or the inability to pay bills on time can prevent one’s achievement of the American Dream, which, for minorities, was once a reality but is now out of reach. 

Read more about the growing racial wealth gap in Clearinghouse Review: Journal of Poverty Law and Policy

The Equal Credit Opportunity Act: A Fair-Lending Tool for the Justice Department and You, Too

Foreclosed homeThe Department of Justice (DOJ) ended 2011 with a bang, reaching an enormous $335 million fair-lending settlement with Countrywide Financial Corporation and its subsidiaries. The record-setting settlement secures relief for more than 200,000 African American and Hispanic borrowers who were more often steered into subprime mortgage loans or were charged higher fees than were white borrowers with similar credit profiles. The proposed consent order of December 21 resolves DOJ’s claims that Countrywide’s lending practices during the housing boom of 2004–2008 violated both the Fair Housing Act and the Equal Credit Opportunity Act.

The Equal Credit Opportunity Act (ECOA) prohibits discrimination in every phase of a credit transaction such as a mortgage loan. When creditors discriminate on the basis of race, ethnicity, marital status, or another protected class, they subject themselves to civil liability for actual and punitive damages. Private citizens can bring ECOA claims, as can several authorized government agencies such as the Department of Justice and the new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. ECOA has been on the books since 1974, but its enforcement has been minimal. The foreclosure crisis and its disproportionate impact on minority groups, however, have renewed public interest in fair-lending laws such as ECOA—and given DOJ’s landmark discrimination settlement, this revived focus has come none-too-soon.

ECOA is valuable for more than just compensating victims of discriminatory lending, as was accomplished by DOJ. Many people who were unfairly steered into subprime mortgages ultimately found themselves facing foreclosure. In the current issue of Clearinghouse Review: Journal of Poverty Law and Policy, Jennifer D. Newton and Tamara St. Hilaire of Florida Legal Services explain how advocates can use ECOA to challenge and prevent such foreclosures. The authors explain that borrowers, depending on where they live, may file a lawsuit under ECOA to prevent a foreclosure or, if a foreclosure case is already underway, may countersue under ECOA or use it as a defense against the foreclosure action. Plaintiffs may prove discrimination with direct evidence of discriminatory intent. Most courts also allow plaintiffs to meet their burden of proof with circumstantial evidence of disparate treatment or impact.

When courts allow disparate impact claims under ECOA, they look to fair housing discrimination cases for guidance. The U.S. Supreme Court will also be looking at disparate impact claims under the Fair Housing Act (FHA) later this year when it decides Magner v. Gallagher, which is scheduled for oral argument on February 29. Specifically, the Court will decide whether disparate impact claims are cognizable at all under FHA and, if so, how they should be analyzed. The outcome of Magner will likely affect how courts view disparate impact claims brought under ECOA as well.

In the meantime, the Justice Department will be appointing an independent administrator to identify victims of Countrywide’s discriminatory lending who are entitled to compensation as a result of the settlement. Those who believe they were discriminated against by Countrywide and have questions about the settlement may contact the Department at countrywide.settlement@usdoj.gov

 

Bank of America Settles Countrywide's Debts

Foreclosed HomeThousands of homeowners will be getting relief soon if they took out a loan with Countrywide Financial before 2008. Charges against Countrywide, now a subsidiary of Bank of America, are part of the largest mortgage-servicing case ever to come before the Fair Trade Commission (FTC), and one of the largest overall judgments. The New York Times reported that Bank of America will pay $108 million to families who were charged inflated “cost of service” fees such as lawn mowing and property inspection.

Over the past few years, Countrywide has become the poster child for the predatory lending industry and has received much of the blame for the housing crisis. Reports of abuses include the inadequate underwriting of adjustable rate mortgages or ARMs, unhelpful customer service, abysmal record keeping, abusive origination fees, and making false and defaming claims against homeowners who filed for bankruptcy protection.

As part of the monetary settlement, the FTC is requiring Bank of America to establish internal procedures and to use an independent third party to verify that bills and claims filed in Countrywide’s ongoing bankruptcy proceedings are valid. Countrywide also faces a criminal investigation by the Federal Fraud Enforcement Task Force into the defamation charges against it.

Unfortunately, Countrywide is only one of many lenders accused of predatory lending and consumer abuses. Although the FTC has played an integral role in holding Countrywide accountable, these predatory practices still abound in the mortgage industry. We need strong laws that protect consumers; that is why the Shriver Center supports an independent consumer protection agency which will prevent these abuses from happening in the future.

For more information contact the Community Investment Unit at the Shriver Center.

This article was co-authored by Susan Ritacca.


Illinois Legislature Passes Bill to Protect Homeowners

Bill seeks to ensure that Illinois homeowners benefit from federal Making Home Affordable Program

On April 29, 2010, the Chicago Tribune reported that the number foreclosures reaching completion in the Chicago area was higher in the first quarter of 2010 than in any other period during the past five years. This is according to Woodstock Institute data released the same day. 

While the worsening crisis in the Chicago region certainly highlights the shortcomings of federal foreclosure prevention programs like the Home Affordable Modification Program (HAMP), HAMP servicers have also been failing Illinois homeowners. Advocates report that homes are being lost to foreclosure even while homeowners are still trying to modify their loans under HAMP, in violation of the program. Indeed, the National Consumer Law Center and the National Association of Consumer Advocates reports that in a recent survey of over 100 consumer advocates, nearly 95% of the surveyed advocates have represented homeowners in cases where a servicer tried to proceed with a foreclosure sale without a completed review under HAMP. HAMP can hardly be successful if homeowners who apply to the program are losing their homes because the program is violated. Illinois homeowners deserve the opportunity to try and benefit from federal foreclosure prevention programs, even if they are not as effective as was hoped.

Recognizing the need to improve the effectiveness of the HAMP program, the Treasury Department issued new directive 10-02 on March 24, 2010, that, among other things, (a) clarifies that servicers must inform homeowners who meet basic criteria about the HAMP program, (b) prohibits referrals to foreclosure until either the homeowner has been evaluated and determined ineligible for HAMP or reasonable solicitation efforts have failed; and (c) requires that a servicer of a mortgage potentially subject to HAMP certify to the foreclosure attorney or trustee that the homeowner is not HAMP-eligible before a home can go to foreclosure sale. 

Although these new rules give foreclosure attorneys better guidance about when to file cases and proceed to sale, the directives still rely on the compliance of servicers. In order for the HAMP program to truly benefit homeowners, they must be able to stop foreclosure court proceedings when the HAMP program is violated before their homes are lost.

A proposed Illinois law may help. HB 5735, spearheaded by former Representative Deborah Graham, Representative Al Riley, and Senator Jacqueline Collins, makes clear that if a home goes to foreclosure sale in violation of the Making Home Affordable Program (of which HAMP is a major component), the homeowner can have the court set aside the sale, so that the owner can continue to work through the federal program. HB 5735 should be heading to Governor Quinn’s desk shortly. We implore Governor Quinn to sign the important protections of HB 5735 into law.

New Protections for Renters in Foreclosure

As the foreclosure crisis has unfolded throughout the country, it has become evident that renters – not just homeowners - have been victims of this crisis. Indeed, the National Low-Income Housing Coalition reports that renters make up about 40% of the families facing the loss of their housing due to foreclosure and more than one in every five foreclosed properties is a rental property. 

Residents in foreclosed properties have been caught unaware that their home is being foreclosed and have scrambled with very little notice to find safe replacement housing. Rental properties in foreclosure fall into disrepair – even when there are still families living there.  Advocates throughout the country, grappling with the effect of the economic downturn, have called for increased protections for renters affected by foreclosure. Legislators have listened.

On May 20, 2009, President Obama signed into law the Protecting Tenants at Foreclosure Act of 2009, part of the Helping Families Save Their Homes Act of 2009 (Pub. L. 111-22). This law, which sunsets in 2012, ensures that renters in foreclosed properties receive at least 90 days notice before they have to move, and that tenants who start a lease term before the notice of foreclosure may continue to live in their homes until the lease expires.

In Illinois, Representative Will Burns and Senator Jacqueline Collins have championed a bill, HB 3863, which would provide much needed protections for Illinois renters living in foreclosed properties. Currently, Illinois renters are not entitled to notice when control or ownership of the property in which they live changes as a result of foreclosure. Consequently, they frequently do not know who owns the property, where to pay rent, or who to call if repairs are necessary. Among other protections, HB 3863 would provide renters with essential information regarding their homes. 

The basic provisions of HB 3863 include:

·         During the foreclosure case, if a receiver (or mortgagee in possession) is appointed to operate and manage the property while the foreclosure case is pending, the receiver must:

a)      Make a good faith effort to identify residents of the property; and

b)      Notify residents of his or her appointment, inform residents that the property is the subject of a foreclosure action, and provide contact information for resident concerns and repair requests.

c)       Post notices with contact information at the property.

·         After the foreclosure is complete, the lender/new owner must:

a)      Make a good faith effort to identify residents of the property; and

b)      Notify residents that the lender/new owner has acquired the property, inform residents that the property has been the subject of foreclosure, and provide contact information for resident concerns and repair requests.

c)       Post notices with contact information at the property.

·         Tenants evicted as a part of the foreclosure case are granted a minimum of 30 days to move after the eviction hearing.

HB 3863 has been sent to the Governor’s desk. We implore Governor Quinn to sign it to protect the hidden victims of the foreclosure crisis.

Call 217-782-0244to encourage Governor Quinn to sign HB 3863.


 

Fighting the Foreclosure Monster

Dedicated advocates around the country are working furiously on behalf of clients who face foreclosure. Surely some of these creative minds have figured out how to solve the foreclosure crisis—haven’t they? Well, no. Lenders and loan servicers continue to resist loan modification, despite new federal incentives contained in the Home Affordable Modification Program, and advocates continue to grapple with the foreclosure monster.  

But promising efforts are underway. Philadelphia’s mandatory foreclosure diversion program, often held up as a model, can force lenders to come to the table. Of course, as advocates there point out, the program’s success relies on multiple pieces being in place: organizers (from ACORN, Philadelphia Unemployment Project, and other organizations) making personal contact with homeowners facing foreclosure, the Philadelphia Legal Assistance hotline, housing counselors, and representation in the actual mediation. While no panacea, a report on the program’s first year credits it with averting 1,400 foreclosures.

In areas where property values hit the stratosphere a couple of years ago many borrowers, to keep their homes, need not just loan modification but also principal reduction. In Los Angeles’ San Fernando Valley, advocates from Neighborhood Legal Services and community organizers from One LA joined forces to help homeowners negotiate collectively with their loan servicers; One LA used the data gathered to get the city council involved. The result is a pilot project through which, if the lender agrees to reduced principal and a fixed interest rate, the city will fund a “silent second” mortgage to reduce payments even further; the second mortgage is payable only upon sale or refinancing of the property.

Both these approaches were highlighted in a June 23 Shriver Center webinar, and the Los Angeles effort is also the subject of an article in the May-June 2009 issue of Clearinghouse Review. What innovative approaches are underway in your community? We’d love to hear about them. Email marciahenry@povertylaw.org