Ads to forestall foreclosure?

From the how-can-I-best-annoy-my-neighbors department, WebUrbanist explains how you can trade your home’s exterior for mortgage payments:

Looking to make a little extra money, and instigate an all-out war with your neighbors? A company called ‘Brainiacs from Mars‘ has the perfect solution. They’ll paint your house in the brightest, most annoying colors imaginable and plaster it with logos in the ‘Billboard Home Initiative’, which is aimed at homeowners dealing with the threat of foreclosure.

I guess homeowners facing eviction now have a new way to not go quietly.  Though I wonder if pulling a stunt like this would actually accelerate the foreclosure process.  With so many homeowners behind on their mortgage payments and the huge backlog of foreclosure cases in some areas, it strikes me that purposely turning one’s home into a garish billboard might move actually one to the very top of a bank’s priority list for eviction.

The gift of empathy

Megan McArdle of the Atlantic has a timely reminder of the dangers of schadenfreude:

I saw a fair amount of chortling this morning about this Bloomberg piece on wealthy financial-industry types who are having to cut back because of plummeting bonuses….[W]hen middle class people take out a mortgage that’s perfectly affordable on the income they’ve been enjoying for years, and then lose the house because they suddenly saw that income cut in half, we don’t feel a delicious sense of joy because they finally got what was coming to them.   We recognize that this it is really terrible to be forced out of a home where you’ve built loads of happy memories and dreams–and not incidentally, to possibly be forced to yank your kids out of the aforementioned schools.

Why are people supposed to shrug off the exact same thing because they’re rich?  It’s still really awful to lose your house.  I hardly think it’s whining to worry about this when your income drops and your fixed expenses don’t.
There are plenty of problems in this country and this world.  Rejoicing in the misery of others is just another problem that nobody needs.
The fact is that no matter how much you make, seeing your income fall below the expenses you’ve committed to is difficult.  Obviously, people whose expenses are closer to the minimum deserve more of our sympathy, and our help.  But I’m not sure that this means we’re supposed to be happy when it happens to someone richer than we are.  It’s not very attractive when conservatives rejoice to see union members thrown out of work.  I’m not sure this is much better.

Knowing when to fold ’em

The Washington Post had a fascinating article yesterday about how banks are responding to one city’s foreclosure crisis:

Cleveland — The sight of excavators tearing down vacant buildings has become common in this foreclosure-ravaged city, where the housing crisis hit early and hard. But the story behind the recent wave of demolitions is novel — and cities around the country are taking notice. A handful of the nation’s largest banks have begun giving away scores of properties that are abandoned or otherwise at risk of languishing indefinitely and further dragging down already depressed neighborhoods.

This closely mirrors the approach that Youngstown, another Ohio city, has taken to their dwindling population:

Even when the result is an empty lot, it can be one less pockmark. While some widespread demolitions could risk hollowing out the urban core of struggling cities such as Cleveland, advocates say that the homes being targeted are already unsalvageable and that the bulldozers are merely “burying the dead.”

However, unlike in Youngstown where that city is simply trying to shrink to a manageable size, the Cleveland demolitions are already leading to redevelopment:

The demolitions in some cases have paved the way for community gardens, church additions and parking lots.

For good or ill, this looks to be a growing trend for some time. The article notes that New York, Philadelphia, Georgia, and others have or soon will pass laws similar to the ones Cleveland used to authorize its land bank and teardowns. Unfortunately, there doesn’t seem to be any shortage of foreclosed property candidates:

At the end of August, the nation’s banks, along with Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, had an inventory of more than 816,000 foreclosed properties on their books waiting for a buyer, according to RealtyTrac. An additional 800,000 are working their way through the foreclosure process.

H/t to the ABA Journal for the original link pointing me to the Post article.

Foreclosure as legal remedy reports about a Florida couple who foreclosed on a bank (yes, you read that right):

It started five months ago when Bank of America filed foreclosure papers on the home of a couple, who didn’t owe a dime on their home.

The couple said they paid cash for the house.

The case went to court and the homeowners were able to prove they didn’t owe Bank of America anything on the house. In fact, it was proven that the couple never even had a mortgage bill to pay.

Not surprisingly, homeowner Maurenn Nyergers ran up some costly legal bills defending herself against Bank of America’s egregious mistake, and the judge quite reasonably ordered BoA to pay Nyergers’ legal fees.  This is where things got interesting:

After more than 5 months of the judge’s ruling, the bank still hadn’t paid the legal fees, and the homeowner’s attorney did exactly what the bank tried to do to the homeowners. He seized the bank’s assets.

Additional coverage (and pictures) at the Daily Mail.

Lots of news and blog commentators are talking about this story with phrases like “sweet justice” and “very satisfying”, but I think several other lessons can be drawn from this story.

1.  Foreclosure is a very powerful legal remedy.  Cash can disappear, cars and boats can move, but land and buildings (generally) stay put.  Nothing gets an owner’s attention like the prospect of losing their real estate.  It’s amazing how fast BoA paid up once they realized a local branch was threatened.

2.  Foreclosure is open to everyone.  “Equal justice under law” is sadly an ideal not always present in the real world.  Nonetheless, this story illustrates how anyone owed money can use it to get paid.  “The system” does sometimes work!

3.  “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.”  Consider all of the opportunities BoA had for this to be a non-issue:

  • They could have double-checked their paperwork to see if a mortgage existed before filing a lawsuit.
  • They could have double-checked their paperwork after filing their lawsuit.
  • They could have settled quietly with the homeowner after they realized their error instead of forcing a court to rule against them.
  • They could have paid their bill quickly to avoid further embarrassing publicity.

Instead, of course, BoA has created a national news story that makes it look disorganized, bullying, and a deadbeat.

The latest foreclosure chapter: lawyers and “robo-signers”

The Wall Street Journal suggests that one particular lawsuit, begun in 2004, helped bring to light the most recent issue in the American foreclosure saga: the use of “robo-signers” by lending firms. Because of these practices, a number of banks have had to suspend foreclosure proceedings to examine the paperwork more closely:

Lillian and Robert Jackson stopped paying on their home in Jacksonville, Fla., in 2004 when business dropped off at their cleaning company. Eviction might have seemed inevitable when they faced a foreclosure hearing two years later.

But their lawyer, James Kowalksi, had the idea of taking a deposition from the signer of the mortgage papers. When a document processor for GMAC Mortgage admitted she routinely signed such papers without being familiar with details of the loans, she was tagged as one of a species now known as robo-signers.

It was a first step in the growth of a legal sub-specialty called foreclosure defense that has sown confusion and turmoil in the housing market. Lawyers in the field now commonly use a technique more identified with corporate litigation: probing depositions, designed to uncover any lapses in judgment, flaws in a process or wrongdoing. In the 23 states where foreclosures entail a court hearing, the bank may be ordered to pay the homeowner’s legal bill if a lawyer can convince a judge that the bank has submitted false documents, such as affidavits saying employees personally reviewed the details of loans when they didn’t.

Ultimately, lenders argue that this sort of legal proceeding doesn’t keep the resident in their home; they still should be evicted from their homes for failing to pay because this is just a paperwork issue. What remains to be seen is if there is some sort of “smoking gun” case where the bank proceeded with foreclosure when it should not have.

But in the mean time, it appears that there are a number of lawyers who see an opportunity here. And in the court of public opinion, revelations like this don’t help the public image of the lenders.

Foreclosing foreclosure

Many news outlets are reporting on the escalating foreclosure paperwork mess, and the American Bar Association’s Law Journal has a roundup describing some of the most recent calls for banks to halt foreclosures entirely.

I haven’t had time to dive into the issue extensively, but my grasp of the underlying issues leads to the following two observations:

  1. I’m not sure what the banks–and especially the law firms–were thinking.  Lawyers are paid often-exorbitant amounts of money to dot i’s and cross t’s.  This is precisely what they appear to have failed to do here:  comply with important technicalities.  Why?
  2. None of the long-term fundamentals appear to have changed.  The houses in question will still be foreclosed; the only real question is how long the process will drag out.  That can’t be good for the economic recovery.