County supervisors urge banks to suspend foreclosures
The state legislature is broken. Not only is it broken, but it has also prevented local governments from doing what can’t seem to get done in Sacramento—such as providing homeowners with legal protection from banks conducting fraudulent foreclosures. That was the consensus of the Santa Cruz County Board of Supervisors at their May 15 meeting, when they adopted a resolution “urging” (but not requiring) local banks to suspend foreclosures until beefed-up, borrower protection laws are passed by the state legislature. The laws are known collectively as the “California Homeowner’s Bill of Rights.”
The county’s resolution, which is almost identical to a resolution adopted by the City and County of San Francisco last month, falls far short of what many housing activists believe is necessary. They would prefer to see the county mandating an outright moratorium on foreclosures until a program of independent legal review and certification of legality is established.
County Counsel Dana McCrea advised the Board of Supervisors that authority to mandate such a moratorium or require more stringent legal review in the foreclosure process is “almost entirely” preempted by current state law, and the county would almost certainly be sued, probably successfully, if it were to adopt such measures.
“This speaks directly to why people have so little faith in government,” Supervisor John Leopold said at the May 15 board meeting, explaining his frustration with the “lack of legal space” at the county level to seriously challenge banks on potentially fraudulent foreclosure practices.
“Not only is the banking lobby making the likelihood of passing the California Homeowner’s Bill of Rights very, very low in Sacramento—it comes as no surprise to me that these same moneyed interests have had their way preempting local government from initiating their own, more stringent local protections,” Leopold said.
Apart from the fact there are between 100 and 150 foreclosure filings per month in Santa Cruz County, there are two other developments that have enraged local activists and inspired the pressure they have brought to bear on local politicians for more protection against fraudulent foreclosures. The first is a forensic audit of 382 foreclosures conducted by the City and County of San Francisco Assessor-Recorder that found 82 percent of the foreclosure cases studied were legally defective, with at least one clear violation of law, and a majority had substantial evidence of fraud, including back-dated, “robo-signed” or fabricated documents, as well as false claims of beneficiary status.
The second development is the drastic reduction in foreclosures in Nevada that are a direct result of a new state law requiring a notarized affidavit of authority, signed by a bank official, as a requirement of filing a foreclosure, along with clear documentation of the bank’s legal right to foreclose. The law includes severe criminal penalties for any fraud. This state law reduced foreclosure filings in Nevada, formally the nation’s leader in foreclosures, by 76 percent since the law took effect last October, according to Foreclosure Radar, a foreclosure data research firm.
“In light of the City of San Francisco’s Assessor’s report,” Supervisor Ellen Pirie said, “I’m incredibly frustrated and angry… I’m shocked that our legal system, which allows banks to foreclose without judicial review but seems to allow these fraudulent activities without any real supervision, and there’s nothing we can do about it. I don’t understand why our state legislators are not as angry as we are, and [aren’t] more willing to do something about it.”
The supervisors aren’t the only ones angry about the recent, stepped-up lobbying against the California Homeowners Bill of Rights by the banking industry in Sacramento. So is Gina Green, a spokesperson for the Center for Responsible Lending (CRL), a nonprofit advocacy organization that has been a leader in the fight against predatory lending to low-income communities. After more than three years of hard work advocating for borrower protections in the mortgage industry—protections now included in the California Homeowners Bill of Rights—Green said the frustration is high at CRL because this legislation is getting blocked by a few, key members in the state assembly and senate, both Democrat and Republican, who she says have apparently come under the influence of the banking lobby.
Green says CRL is “ready to take the gloves off, and start naming names of those members in the state legislature who are blocking the California Homeowners Bill of Rights legislation.” She goes on to say that this legislation is desperately needed, as shown by the extent of fraudulent practices brought to light in the nationwide law suit brought by 49 State Attorney Generals against five major banks last year, in which banks finally settled for $24 million in damages in February. But the banking industry continues to have a “near lock of influence in the California State legislature,” Green says.
Growing Grass Roots
Jeri Bodemar, a self-described “old activist” and member of the Santa Cruz Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF), says the foreclosure crises just “grabbed her.” As a result, she started doing outreach and organizing and began talking to Joy Hinz, a lead activist and organizer of the local Occupy Foreclosure Working Group.
Hinz, along with several members of the working group that originally spun off from Occupy Santa Cruz, have been attending County Board of Supervisor meetings regularly for the last several months, and encouraging the supervisors during Oral Communications to take action to protect families from foreclosure.
Meanwhile, Bodemar was impressed by a KPFA radio show featuring C.J. Holmes, the founder of Home Owners For Justice, a nonprofit organization waging a statewide information and organizing campaign to stop foreclosures. Bodemar and Hinz invited Holmes, who is also a long time Sonoma County real estate broker, to Santa Cruz, and co-sponsored a recent training workshop and public information event about fraudulent foreclosures practices.
In addition to a training workshop for “citizen fraud investigators,” in which about 10 people were given an overview of what expert foreclosure fraud investigators look for, Holmes gave a three hour presentation to about 50 people at the Quaker Meeting House the evening of May 15, the same day the county supervisors adopted the foreclosure ordinance.
Holmes provided an in-depth analysis of how much the mortgage lending industry has changed over the course of her 25-year career in real estate brokerage, and showed that most of this change, made obvious by the combined Wall Street financial crises and collapse of the real estate market, has been for the worst. Holmes provided a fast but deeply researched summary of how the relatively safe, stodgy, local mortgage lending industry of 30 years ago was transformed into a Wall Street investor-driven casino of mortgage-backed securities, with players from all over the world.
One of the bottom lines, according to Holmes, is that the lack of accountability of banks in the foreclosure process is directly liked to the lack of accountability in the securitization of mortgage-baked securities sold on Wall Street, which was made technically possible by the industry created “MERS” recording system. Because the market crashed so hard and so fast, according to Holmes, banks had to resort to “extra-legal” techniques like robo-signing and forging documents to keep up with foreclosures once the “house of cards” began to collapse.
A key problem that Holmes said should be a “take away” from her talk was that the system continues to collapse, with a huge inventory of unsold, bank-owned homes, and that the idea that housing market will eventually stabilize under these conditions is misguided.
“It’s time for us to get out of the box that banks have put us in,” Hinz said after the presentation. “The banks have been setting us up for years, and gaming the system every step of the way. People are beginning to wake up and realize what’s been done to them, and realizing they can’t win playing by the banks rules.”