Yale Law Review: “In Defense of “Free Houses”

MEGAN WACHSPRESS, JESSIE AGATSTEIN & CHRISTIAN MOTT published an article that takes dead aim at the “free house” controversy. In the Yale Law Review they come to the conclusion that (1) the house isn’t free to any homeowner even if they escape the mortgage and (2) the projected social cost of  market values are wrong. But probably the most stinging criticism of the judicial system is that judges are abandoning the rule of law for ad hoc rulings whose only purpose is to avoid a result the judge doesn’t like.

Unfortunately, the article does not fully address the issue of why the banks are failing to prove what is ordinarily a slam dunk case. The authors seem to assume that the debt is legitimate and that it is mainly a paperwork problem. I would add my usual comment: if the banks simply had continued with the standard procedures they would not have had any paperwork problems no matter how many times the loan was sold. The greater evil that is not addressed in case decisions and law review articles is that this was all part of fraudulent scheme and THAT is why the banks had to resort to more fraud (in documentation).

We should remember that banks basically drafted the statutes and are the source of all paperwork on consumer loans, especially mortgage loans. For hundreds of years they knew how to do it, knew how to keep it and rarely misplaced anything. It strains belief to think that suddenly the banks  forgot what took hundreds of years to develop. The more insidious reason is what is feared to be the nuclear option — that the mortgages, notes and loan contracts were all an illusion, even if the money was real.

In the end, for reasons other than those expressed on these pages, the authors come to the same conclusion that I did — the “free house” is going to the banks every time a foreclosure is granted.

Here are some quotes from their article that I think are self-explanatory.

When addressing faulty foreclosures, courts are afraid to bar future attempts to foreclose—that is, afraid of giving borrowers “free houses.” While courts rarely explain the reasoning behind this aversion, it seems to arise from a reflexive belief that such an outcome would be unjust. Courts are therefore quick to sidestep well-established principles of res judicata in favor of ad hoc measures meant to protect banks against the specter of “free houses.” [e.s.]

This Comment argues that this approach is misguided; courts should issue final judgments in favor of homeowners in cases where banks fail to prove the elements required for foreclosure. Furthermore, these judgments should have res judicata effect—thus giving homeowners “free houses.” This approach has several benefits: it is consistent with longstanding res judicata principles in other forms of civil litigation, it provides a necessary market-correcting incentive to promote greater responsibility among foreclosure litigators, and it alleviates the tremendous costs of successive foreclosure proceedings.

In a foreclosure suit, the bank must generally prove the following: (1) the homeowner has signed both the note (the underlying loan) and the mortgage assigning the house as collateral for that note; (2) the bank owns the note and mortgage; (3) the homeowner still owes a debt to the bank; (4) the homeowner is behind on that debt; and (5) the bank has accelerated that remaining debt in accordance with the terms of the note itself. When a bank fails to prove these elements, a judge is legally required to rule in favor of the homeowner.

Recently, courts have been inundated with suits where homeowners question the bank’s ability to prove the second element. Litigation over “proof- of-ownership” issues in foreclosures is a growing nationwide problem; sampling suggests a ten-fold increase between the periods immediately preceding and following the 2007 collapse of the housing market.

To demonstrate ownership without expending more resources than pooling and servicing agreements allotted, bank employees signed hundreds of thousands of affidavits asserting that they had seen and could attest to the contents of original documents demonstrating ownership of the underlying mortgage. Although such affidavits were a legally acceptable means of demonstrating such ownership, a significant number of them were actually fraudulent.

…ethical transgressions have affected hundreds of thousands of foreclosures.

Judge Schack, a trial judge sitting in the New York Supreme Court for Kings County, has repeatedly sanctioned law firms for bringing improper foreclosure suits when he has independently discovered the inadequacy of the plaintiffs’ evidence as to defendants’ indebtedness or plaintiffs’ ownership of the note. See, e.g., Argent Mortg. Co. v. Maitland, 958 N.Y.S.2d 306 (Sup. Ct. 2010); Wells Fargo Bank v. Hunte, 910 N.Y.S.2d 409 (Sup. Ct. 2010); NetBank v. Vaughn, 841 N.Y.S.2d 827 (Sup. Ct. 2007).

By focusing on the immediate consequence of a ruling for homeowners, the courts ignore perverse incentives created by allowing banks to continue to externalize the costs of their mistakes.

…one approach—that taken by the Florida and Maine Supreme Courts—is to bend the rules of res judicata to avoid a windfall for homeowners. This approach creates few benefits and significant economic problems. In this Part, we argue that further subsidizing banks’ poor litigation practices results in deadweight loss by contributing to negative public-health outcomes and by disincentivizing banks from improving their servicing and litigation techniques. We also explain how granting winning homeowners “free houses” will not negatively affect the mortgage market.

…broader social subsidization of irresponsible [bank] behavior.

…prolonged foreclosure proceedings create negative social externalities, depressing surrounding homes’ resale value, reducing local governments’ tax revenues, and increasing criminal activity.44 Foreclosures also appear to have significant effects on community members’ physical and mental health, and correlate with increased rates of depression, anxiety, suicide, cardiovascular disease, and emergency-care treatment.

…although judges have expressed concern about homeowner windfalls, the alternative creates a windfall for banks that cut corners in managing and prosecuting foreclosures. The risk and costs of losing foreclosures should already be internalized in the price of current mortgages. Empirical studies suggest that greater protection for mortgagors historically corresponds to slightly higher mortgage rates among lenders. These studies indicate that lenders adjust the price of mortgages based on what they anticipate the cost, and not just the likelihood, of foreclosures will be.

 

SHILLER: Principal Must be Written Down for Economic Recovery

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Editor’s Comment:  

We are looking into the abyss of economic failure. For economists, the people who know the facts, the ONLY answer left on the table is principal correction or principal reduction. We have tried everything else.

The reason is very simple. The Banks created a market where prices soared above values and like any other situation where there is a false spike in prices over values, the correction needs to be made. The free market has already arrived at the same conclusion —- nobody wants those mortgages even if they were valid and enforceable. The refusal to rush toward principal reduction is putting the banks in an all or nothing position. The market and the economists have spoken — if that is the choice the banks will get nothing.

But the word from the banks is that we can’t have principal reduction. The real reason is that their balance sheets will be wrecked by forcing them to admit that those assets they are reporting are pure fiction — an inevitable consequence of bank excess finally recognized by the rating agencies last week. But the banks are spinning the myth that if principal reduction (in other words REALITY) prevails then everyone will want to do it. Assuming that is true, why not?  Shouldn’t everyone want reality? The Banks have had their windfall, they have been paid enough to pay back the investor lenders, and they are driving the economy into a ditch with their unrelenting death grip on the purse strings. 

Americans must decide between the Iceland model in which their economy quickly recovered, and the American model where we continue to languish with no real prospects for recovery. The European attempt at austerity drove them further over the brink. In fact, every policy is now debunked that ignores the realities of the market place and the reality of the importance of the housing market in ANY economic recovery. There is only one thing left. It is the right thing to do.

We have exhausted every idea except for doing the right thing. Restore homes to people who were unlawfully and fraudulently induced into signing papers that never even recited the terms of repayment as it was recited to the real lenders and which never disclosed the multiple borrowers on each loan, most of whom were hidden from the borrowers. Write down the mortgages just as the banks have already done, as confirmed by trading in the marketplace. What is so difficult to accept here?

People get windfalls all the time when bullies take over markets. And yes many homeowners will want the benefits of a write-down that the rest of the world already accepts as true and necessary. The result will restore wealth and power to the middle class, revive the economy and restore our prospects. We will have the resources to repair our ailing infrastructure (an embarrassment to world traveling Americans), invest in education and job training, invest in innovation and get back some of that pride we once had in America.

The only people stopping this are those who are pandering to extremists who would rather see the Country collapse than to allow a “handout” to those undeserving deadbeat homeowners. The facts and reality leave them unpersuaded because fanning the flames of ideology is how many politicians achieve power and maintain it.

Like I said last week. It comes down to this: country or chaos. What is your choice?

Robert Shiller: Lenders Need To Write Down Mortgages To Solve America’s Housing Problem

By Mamta Badkar

Yale economist Robert Shiller says the housing crisis is a collective action problem.

This means, he argues in a New York Times editorial, that if all mortgage lenders were to act collectively and write down what was owed to them by individual homeowners everyone would be better off.

Shiller offers a few types of collective action to write down mortgage principles. One involves giving “community-based, government-appointed trustees a central role” in writing down mortgages, any idea proposed by Yale economist John Geanakoplos and Boston University law professor Susan P. Koniak.

Another proposed by Robert C. Hockett involves “eminent domain” which allows government to seize property with fair compensation to owners when it is done in public interest—and could apply to mortgages:

Professor Hockett argues that a government, whether federal, state or local, can start doing just this right now, using large databases of information about mortgage pools and homeowner credit scores. After a market analysis, it seizes the mortgages. Then it can pay them off at fair value, or a little over that, with money from new investors, issuing new mortgages with smaller balances to the homeowners. Taxpayers are not involved, and no government deficit is incurred. Since homeowners are no longer underwater and have good credit, they are unlikely to default, so the new investors can expect to be repaid.”

People are more likely to default on their mortgage when it is underwater i.e. when their homes are worth less than their mortgage. And  lenders lose money on foreclosures because of lower home values and legal costs. So it would be in everyone’s best interest according to Shiller if mortgage lenders were to take some such collective action.

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