Held underwater

Pub date May 17, 2011
WriterSarah Phelan


Since the recession began four years ago, 2,000 homes have been lost to foreclosure in San Francisco. These numbers sound insignificant compared to other counties in the Bay Area, but they primarily have hit communities of color already struggling to remain in this expensive city.

As panelists at a recent seminar on foreclosures noted, the first wave hit the Bayview and the Excelsior, while the second hit the Richmond and the Sunset. And as the recession drags on and more borrowers go underwater, another 2,000 foreclosures are on the local horizon.

Although foreclosures continue to destabilize communities and drain resources from local governments, the banking lobby continues to oppose legislative reforms that would allow more people to remain in their homes. And this deep-pocketed resistance has labor, religious, and educational organizations forming the New Bottom Line coalition in an effort to find grassroots solutions to the crisis.

“Foreclosures are the new f-word,” said Regina Davis, CEO of Bayview’s San Francisco Housing Development Corporation, at SFHDC’s April 29 foreclosure seminar.

Sups. John Avalos and Malia Cohen illustrated that there is no shortage of horror stories about predatory lending and dual tracking, in which borrowers apply for loan modifications while the bank continues to pursue foreclosure. Representatives for Sup. Ross Mirkarimi and Assessor-Recorder Phil Ting noted that the banking lobby has blocked even the most modest reforms, even as uncertainty continues to devastate the housing market.

Avalos said his family underwent a housing crisis in 2009, when his wife left her job to home school their special-needs daughter. “We tried to get a loan modification and were told we could only get it by going into default,” he said, recalling how Mission Economic Development Agency (MEDA) helped them navigate the process. “If this could happen to an elected official, it could happen to anyone.”

Cohen, who lost her condo in the Bayview to foreclosure earlier this year, described foreclosure as “an incredible beast that has ravaged and wrecked the finances of many Latino, African American, and Asian communities who were sold the American dream of homeownership but then had the rug pulled away.”

Mirkarimi aide Robert Selna, a former San Francisco Chronicle reporter, said the banking industry spent $70 million last year to kill legislation by state Sen. Mark Leno (D-SF) and Senate President Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento) to end dual tracking. This year, the industry has been opposing SB729, Leno and Steinberg’s latest attempt to require banks to give people a definitive answer on loan modification, identify who owns the loan, and give borrowers legal recourse if banks don’t take these steps.

“SB729 gets to the heart of helping to keep people in their homes, but it’s difficult to combat the spending power of the banking industry,” Selna said.

Ben Weber, an analyst in the Assessor-Recorder’s Office, said approximately 277,000 homes in California are going through the foreclosure process; an estimated 1.8 million California residents are underwater on their mortgage; and California is sixth in “negative equity” nationwide. “Negative equity is one of the best indicators of foreclosures — so can we expect another 1.5 million to 1.6 million foreclosures statewide?” he asked.

Weber noted that Ting is supporting AB 1321 by Assemblymember Bob Wieckowski (D-Fremont), which would require that all mortgage assignments be recorded within 30 days of their execution; prevent notices of default from being recorded until 45 days after any deed of trust has been recorded; and provide consumers with better transparency about who owns their debt. Yet Ting’s office reports that the banking industry has lobbied against this and other foreclosure-related legislation

Weber said the legislation is a response to problems with the industry’s Mortgage Electronic Registration System (MERS), which was introduced 15 years ago. “The mortgage industry wanted to expedite the transfer of mortgages between entities so that they could be sold and resold on Wall Street,” Weber said, noting that the system also allowed the industry to avoid paying recording fees to counties.

MERS records an average of 6,700 deeds of trust annually in San Francisco, and MERS deeds of trust are usually transferred two to four times, Weber observed. “So MERS members avoided — conservatively — $134,000 per year in fees.”

Grace Martinez of Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment noted that the banking lobby already killed AB935 by Assemblymember Bob Blumenfield (D-Northridge), which sought to charge a $20,000 fee to compensate for the estimated cost of a foreclosure to local government. “That money would have gone back to the city,” she said.

In an April 14 letter, the banking lobby claimed Blumenfield’s bill was a tax that increases the costs of homeownership for new borrowers. “It also serves to discourage the importation of capital into California at a time when the federal government is winding down their involvement in mortgage finance and protracts and complicates California’s economic recovery,” stated the letter, which the California Bankers Association, the California Chamber of Commerce, and other business groups signed.

But Dan Byrd, research director at Berkeley’s Greenlining Institute, reminded the mostly black and brown crowd at SFHDC’s foreclosure seminar that declining property values due to foreclosures have drained $193 billion from African American and $180 billion from Latino communities nationwide. “Folks from these communities who had credit good enough to qualify for a prime loan were given subprime loans with adjustable mortgage rates,” he said

Byrd stressed that homeowners facing foreclosures need to be more financially literate. “A lot of loan documents are written in language that people can’t understand, and they don’t have the money to hire a lawyer,” Byrd said, as he urged politicians to fund organizations that provide financial counseling and education. “Our elected federal officials just cut the budget that supports SFHDC and similar groups.”

SFHDC housing counselor Ed Donaldson said appraisal values make it hard to sell the below-market-rate units that are coming online. “So if we don’t do something about the foreclosure problem, the housing market will continue to unwind,” he said, urging people to protests banks and show up at City Hall and in Sacramento to support reform.

The Rev. Arnold Townsend, vice president of the local branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, said San Francisco likes to pretend that the foreclosure crisis didn’t really affect the city. “But it did,” he said. “It badly hit people of color that the city, by its policies, doesn’t seem to care if they leave.”

Attorney Henri Norris noted that bankruptcy can be an alternative to foreclosure. “A bankruptcy can stop a foreclosure, at least temporarily,” Norris said. He recommends that people make their loans current and try to get a loan modification approved. “But it’s going to take running a marathon.”

Avalos, who is running for mayor, noted that the city does not fund enough affordable housing and he proposed an affordable housing bond that would include assistance for mortgage assistance, ownership downpayment, seismic retrofitting, and energy efficiency. “I understand that voters see no personal benefit, but it would raise wealth in property values,” he said.

Cohen observed that the federal Homeowners Affordable Modification Program (HAMP), which President Obama unveiled in March 2009, “hasn’t worked” and that most of the important reform proposals are “happening at the state level.” She encouraged people to show support for SB729, but wasn’t ready to declare support for Avalos’ housing bond.

“I want to make sure the climate is ripe, that Sups. Carmen Chu and Eric Mar are included, because their districts will be impacted by foreclosures, and that the support is broad-based,” she said. “But folks can divest from banks that have not treated us right.”

Noting that divestment was the most effective way to end apartheid in South Africa, SFHDC’s Davis invited seminar participants to a free screening of Charles Ferguson’s documentary Inside Job, which shows how subprime loans, dual tracking, and mortgage bundling triggered the 2008 financial meltdown — and how many of the main players are still calling the shots.

But despite SFHDC’s informative seminar and the New Bottom Line campaign’s May 3 protest at Wells Fargo’s annual shareholder meetings in San Francisco, SB729 failed to make it out of committee May 4, when Sen. Alex Padilla (D-Van Nuys) announced he would introduce an alternative dual tracking bill. In addition, Wieckowski turned his MERS reform into a two-year bill, suggesting the votes weren’t there to approve it.

Paul Leonard, California director of the Center for Responsible Lending, observed that SB729 supporters include a broad array of consumer, civil rights, labor, faith-based groups, and homeowners, but the only groups in opposition were the California Bankers Association, the Mortgage Bankers Association, and the Chamber of Commerce.

“I find it remarkable that after the exposure of deep-seeded scandals about robo-signing and the systematic shortcomings of mortgage loan service operators, none of the bills intended to address these issues got out of their first committee hearing,” Leonard said.

In an April 20 letter, the banking lobby claimed that SB729 was “unnecessarily complex,” could overlap and contradict actions by federal regulators and state attorneys general, and promote strategic defaults that would negatively affect communities and cloud title for a year following a foreclosure, leaving properties vacant.

Dustin Hobbs of the California Mortgage Bankers Association claims the average time for a foreclosure is more than 300 days. “This would have dragged it out further, and the last thing we need is more vacant homes and more homes in foreclosure,” he said.

Ting noted that Wieckowski made the call to turn AB1321 into a two-year bill. “But you would have thought we were offering the end of home ownership,” Ting said, noting that the banking industry was shocked when advocates produced a MERS memo that encourages banks to record documents and pay fees. “It basically recommended our legislation,” Ting observed.

“Assignments out of MERS name should be recorded in the county land records, even if the state law does not require such a recording,” a Feb. 16 MERS memo said.

Ting describes MERS as “a Wall Street set-up, the ultimate in smoke and mirrors.”

“We did a little poking around in MERS and found that it would help if the name of the loan owner was recorded,” Ting said, noting that the confusion MERS created is bad for consumers, the real estate industry, and homeowners.

“Part of the problem is computer systems doing what banks used to do,” Ting said. “It ended up with robo-signing and foreclosures being sent to the wrong people. I thought AB1321 was a no-brainer, but we had to take it to five or six legislators before anyone would pick it up. This is a prime example of how a particular industry has made a huge amount of money and is unwilling to bend any rules to give consumers any recourse.”

But CMBA’s Hobbs described AB1321 as “part of a broader attack on MERS.” And an April 21 opposition letter from the banking industry describes it as “creating impediments for attracting capital to California’s mortgage marketplace and imposing significant new workloads on county recorders and clerks.”

Ting says he has heard lobbyists make that argument. “But my assessor recorders organization supported it — and they are mostly not elected officials,” he said, noting the group usually doesn’t get involved in promoting legislation.

Ting admits that it’s hard to get the national reforms that are needed. “San Francisco still has a big part to play. And our legislators are still very powerful, so we have no excuse not to be fighting in Sacramento where the Democrats have a supermajority. I mean, how could these bills not get out of committee? It’s not like we didn’t take amendments, but no level of amendments would have made anything happen.”

“Foreclosures typify this financial and political era,” he continued. “They are about all the things we should have seen coming — and some of us did. But even then, and now, there is political amnesia. For all the families that lost their homes, shouldn’t we do something to make sure this doesn’t happen again? Wall Street was bailed out two years ago, but Main Street is still waiting.”