Kamala Harris: finally, another consumer champion
Kudos to state Attorney General Kamala Harris. She was a real champion for California homeowners this time around. She hung tough, played her cards well and walked off with the biggest slice of the monetary pie for Californians in the recently completed foreclosure mortgage deal struck between the Obama administration and the banking industry. She took the path less traveled, held out for a quantifiable, enforceable deal until the end—and got it.
This was unlike the other 49 states in the negotiated settlement, who will share close to $10 billion in mortgage relief if the banks actually do what they say they will do. Harris leveraged her influence to get an enforcement provision with teeth to make sure the banks honor their commitment stated in the deal to modify from $12 to $18 billion in California mortgages, the kind of debt reduction that can keep many, many people in their homes and allow them to avoid foreclosure proceedings.
Not only did she get the guarantee of bank compliance, she also got in writing the application of special penalties if the banks do not fulfill their part of the deal. Furthermore, Harris reserved the right to still sue California-based banks on behalf of the state’s pension fund.
In California’s separate contingency, mortgage banks must enact a minimum of $12 billion in principle reductions for California owners. Failure to get that amount of reduction done will result in bank penalties of close to $1 billion paid to the state of California, plus the remaining amounts owed. In the multi-state agreement, the federal court in Washington, D.C., is authorized to monitor the process, but in California the attorney general can force the banks to process all payments and penalties in the state.
California accounts for more than 2 million of the 11 million Americans who owe more on their mortgages than their homes are worth. Seven of the 10 American cities with the highest rate of foreclosure are in California, and Countrywide, one of the very biggest real estate concerns that sold overvalued and now virtually worthless mortgages, did most of its damage in the state.
The foreclosure agreement is part of a multi-state settlement with five major mortgage lending banks as a penalty for the massive robo-signing and outright felony fraud they could have been charged with, along with other misconduct, including illegally foreclosing on peoples’ properties and throwing them out into the streets. This was an agreement the banks sought to escape any future liability, but Harris would not accept that part of the package, and her walking away from the table increased California’s take from an initial $4 billion to its present $12 to $18 billion.
California’s negotiating posture even led to other states increasing their amount of relief by another $6 billion.
“The outcome is the result of an insistence that California receive a fair deal commensurate with the harm done here,” said Harris in an interview . “We insisted on homeowner relief for Californians and demanded enforceability so homeowners (could) actually see a benefit that will allow them to stay in their homes, and preserved our ability to investigate banker crime and predatory lending.”
The financial benefits of this unprecedented agreement are to be provided to homeowners whose mortgages are supposedly owned by the five largest banks involved, including Bank of America, Wells Fargo, Chase Morgan Stanley, etc.
Those benefits are to include more than $12 billion in principle reductions or a provision of short sales to more than 250,000 California homeowners who have gone underwater or who have gotten seriously delinquent in their mortgage payments. Another $849 million is to be provided for the refinancing of household loans for 28,000 homeowners who are in significant trouble on their payments. Additionally, $279 million will be offered in restitution to 140,000 homeowners who lost their homes through foreclosure between 2008 and Dec. 31, 2011. There is even money—approximately $1.1 billion—to communities overwhelmed by blight and disrepair, and to former owners for transitional help in moving somewhere else. Finally, beyond the $430 million in penalties and fees, there’s to be a $3.5 billion pool of money provided to 32,000 homeowners to relieve the unpaid balances still charged to them after losing their homes through foreclosures.
Much of this money will be provided quickly to struggling homeowners during 2012-2013, and Harris is expanding her office’s Mortgage Fraud Strike Force to speed up investigations of more bank wrongdoing.
Unfortunately, however, nothing in this great deal addresses Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac mortgages, which actually account for approximately 60 percent of California homeownership, according to the attorney general’s office. Harris said she will now work on that piece of the puzzle.
It is very satisfying to see a sure-handed public servant really try hard to serve the public she represents. The political system surely needs more role models like this, and we, as constituents, certainly need more champions like this. More power to you, Ms. AG.
Professor David L. Horne is founder and executive director of PAPPEI, the Pan African Public Policy and Ethical Institute, which is a new 501(c)(3) pending community-based organization or non-governmental organization (NGO). It is the stepparent organization for the California Black Think Tank which still operates and which meets every fourth Friday.
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A few months ago, we reported on state Attorney General Kamala Harris’ championing of homeowner rights in California. She was very large in brokering the $25 billion dollar federal settlement with five big banks earlier this year—JP Morgan-Chase, Bank of America, CitiBank, Wells Fargo, and Ally—all of whom wanted to limit their exposure to suits for consumer fraud and abuse related to foreclosures.
The last time this column visited the affairs of state Attorney General Kamala Harris she was fresh from scoring a significant negotiated victory for beleaguered California homeowners in the federal omnibus settlement with mortgage banks. What has she been up to lately? She has followed up that triumph with a principled, relentless political effort to convince California legislators to pass a Homeowners Bill of Rights.
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