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The Stone That Brings Down Goliath? Richmond and Eminent Domain

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Posted on Mar 3, 2014

Photo by Averain (CC BY 2.0)

By Ellen Brown, Web of Debt

(Page 2)

Eminent Domain as a Negotiating Tool

Investors can afford high-powered attorneys to bring investor class actions, but underwater and defaulting homeowners usually cannot; and that is where local government comes in. Eminent domain is a way to bring banks and investors to the bargaining table.

Professor Robert Hockett of Cornell University Law School is the author of the plan to use eminent domain to take underwater loans and write them down for homeowners. He writes on NewYorkFed.org:

[In] the case of privately securitized mortgages, [principal] write-downs are almost impossible to carry out, since loan modifications on the scale necessitated by the housing market crash would require collective action by a multitude of geographically dispersed security holders. The solution . . . Is for state and municipal governments to use their eminent domain powers to buy up and restructure underwater mortgages, thereby sidestepping the need to coordinate action across large numbers of security holders.

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The problem is blowback from the banks, but it can be blocked by requiring them to prove title to the properties. Securities are governed by federal law, but real estate law is the domain of the states. Counties have a mandate to maintain clean title records; and legally, clean title requires a chain of “wet” signatures, from A to B to C to D. If the chain is broken, title is clouded. Properties for which title cannot be established escheat (or revert) to the state by law, allowing the government to start fresh with clean title.

New York State law governs most of the trusts involved in securitization. Under it, transfers of mortgages into a trust after the cutoff date specified in the Pooling and Servicing Agreement (PSA) governing the trust are void.

For obscure reasons, the REMICs (Real Estate Mortgage Investment Conduits) claiming to own the properties routinely received them after the closing date specified in the PSAs. The late transfers were done throu gh the fraudulent signatures-after-the-fact called “robo-signing,” which occurred so regularly that they were the basis of a $25 billion settlement between a coalition of state attorneys general and the five biggest mortgage servicers in February 2012. (Why all the robo-signing? Good question. See my earlier article here.)

Until recently, courts have precluded homeowners from raising the late transfers into the trust as a defense to foreclosure, because the homeowners were not parties to the PSAs. But in August 2013, in Glaski v. Bank of America, N.A., 218 Cal. App. 4th 1079 (July 31, 2013), a California appellate court ruled that the question whether the loan ever made it into the asset pool could be raised in determining the proper party to initiate foreclosure. And whether or not the homeowner was a party to the PSA, the city and county have a clear legal interest in seeing that the PSA’s terms were complied with, since the job of the county recorder is to maintain records establishing clean title.

Before the rise of mortgage securitization, any transfer of a note and deed needed to be recorded as a public record, to give notice of ownership and establish a “priority of liens.” With securitization, a private database called MERS (Mortgage Electronic Registration Systems) circumvented this procedure by keeping the deeds as “nominee for the beneficiary,” obscuring the property’s legal owner and avoiding the expense of recording the transfer (usually about $30 each). Estimates are that untraceable property assignments concealed behind MERS may have cost counties nationwide billions of dollars in recording fees. (See my earlier article here.)

Counties thus have not only a fiduciary but a financial interest in establishing clean title to the properties in their jurisdictions. If no one can establish title, the properties escheat and can be claimed free and clear. Eminent domain can be a powerful tool for negotiating loan modifications on underwater mortgages; and if the banks cannot prove title, they have no standing to complain.

The End of “Too Big to Fail”?

Richmond’s city council is only one vote short of the supermajority needed to pursue the eminent domain plan, and it is seeking partners in a Joint Powers Authority that will make the push much stronger. Grassroots efforts to pursue eminent domain are also underway in a number of other cities around the country. If Richmond pulls it off successfully, others will rush to follow.

The result could be costly for some very large banks, but they have brought it on themselves with shady dealings. Christopher Whalen predicts that the FDIC’s withdrawal of “safe harbor” status for the securitization model may herald the end of “too big to fail” for those banks, which will no longer have the power to grossly over-leverage and may have to keep their loans on their books.

Wall Street banks are deemed “too big to fail” only because there is no viable alternative – but there could be. Local governments could form their own publicly-owned banks, on the model of the state-owned Bank of North Dakota. They could then put their revenues, their savings, and their newly-acquired real estate into those public utilities, to be used to generate interest-free credit for the local government (since it would own the bank) and low-cost credit for the local community. For more on this promising option, which has been or is being explored in almost half the state legislatures in the US, see here.

Ellen Brown is an attorney, president of the Public Banking Institute, and a candidate for California State Treasurer running on a state bank platform. She is the author of twelve books including the best-selling Web of Debt and her latest book, The Public Bank Solution, which explores successful public banking models historically and globally.


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