Billion Dollar Bait & Switch: States Divert Foreclosure Deal Funds

By Paul Kiel
ProPublica

This post has been updated to clarify Virginia’s use of its settlement funds.

States have diverted $974 million from this year’s landmark mortgage settlement to pay down budget deficits or fund programs unrelated to the foreclosure crisis, according to a ProPublica analysis. That’s nearly forty percent of the $2.5 billion in penalties paid to the states under the agreement.

The settlement, between five of the country’s biggest banks and an alliance of almost all states and the federal government, resolved allegations that the banks deceived homeowners and broke laws when pursuing foreclosure. One part of the settlement is the cash coming to states; the deal urged states to use that money on programs related to the crisis, but it didn’t require them to.

ProPublica contacted every state that participated in the agreement (and the District of Columbia) to obtain the most comprehensive breakdown yet of how they’ll be spending the funds. You can see the detailed state-by-state results here, along with an interactive map. Many states told us they’ll be finalizing their plans in the coming weeks. We’ll be updating our breakdown as the results come in.

What stands out is that even states slammed by the foreclosure crisis are diverting much or all of their money to the general fund. In California, among the hardest hit states, the governor has proposed using all the money to plug his state’s huge budget gap. And Arizona, also among the worst hit, has diverted about half of its funds to general use. Four other states where a high rate of homeowners faced foreclosure during the crisis are spending little if any of their settlement funds on homeowner services: Georgia, South Carolina, Wisconsin, and Maine.

Overall, only about $527 million has been earmarked for new homeowner-focused programs, but that number will go up. A number of large states — in particular New York, Nevada, Illinois, and Florida — have indicated they’ll be dedicating substantial amounts of the funds to consumer programs, but haven’t yet produced a final breakdown.

Iowa Attorney General Tom Miller, who led the coalition of attorneys general who negotiated the deal, argued that only a very small portion of the settlement was being diverted and it will “overwhelmingly” benefit homeowners. The centerpiece of the settlement is a requirement that the banks earn $20 billion in “credits” by helping homeowners in various ways — from reducing principal on underwater homes to bulldozing empty ones. Because the system awards only partial credit for certain actions, Miller said the settlement would bring more than $20 billion in benefits to consumers — he estimated $35 billion. Critics contend those sorts of numbers far overstate the benefits to consumers, because the banks can claim credit for some activities that were already routine.

The banks will only pay $5 billion in actual cash penalties under the agreement. The largest chunk, $2.5 billion, goes to the states’ attorneys general, while about $1 billion goes to the federal government. $1.5 billion will be sent to borrowers who lost their homes to foreclosure during the crisis in the form of $2,000 payments.

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