Will Mortgage Servicers Become the Country’s Landlords?

Will Mortgage Servicers Become the Country’s Landlords?

Foreclosures have skyrocketed over the past two years and even more are predicted in the coming year. Not only are massive foreclosures tragic for the individual families losing their homes, but they are also responsible for major lender losses, resulting in the current mortgage credit crunch. They have caused dramatically dropping house prices, and increased crime and problems for neighborhoods where foreclosures are rampant. Banks, consumer advocate groups, and the government have been searching for ways to stem the tide of these destructive defaults.

Enter the Deeds For Lease (D4L) program from government-controlled mortgage financier Fannie Mae. With this initiative, Fannie Mae would essentially become the landlord for seriously struggling homeowners. It is designed to “minimize family displacement, deterioration of neighborhoods caused by vandalism and theft to vacant homes, and the effect these have on families, communities and home price stabilization.” Here’s how it works:

A homeowner with a Fannie Mae-backed mortgage facing foreclosure must contact their servicer to see if they qualify. If the homeowner does not qualify for any other home loan

help, like mortgage modification or a short sale, then he/she may be eligible for the program. These homeowners must also be able to afford rent at the current market price. At that point the borrower turns over the home’s deed to the bank, the bank forgives the loan, and the borrower is allowed to rent the same home back from the bank for up to 12 months. During that time the renter will be expected to figure out other living arrangements so that the bank can then sell off the house.

Will other banks follow suit in order to stop losing money on foreclosures? Not likely, according to a recent online Time article. It quoted Cheryl Lang, CEO of Integrated Mortgage Solutions, as saying the main problem lies in the legality of the program. “Once a lender takes possession, if there’s a mold issue or Chinese drywall, whatever the problem is with that house, whether or not the lender is aware of it, that’s a liability.”

Many of the nation’s largest lenders, including Citigroup and JPMorgan Chase, have meager interest in converting homes into rentals. “We’re in the lending business,” says Chase spokesman Tom Kelly. “We’re not really equipped to be landlords.” Lenders are sitting on nearly half a million repossessed houses nationwide, but getting rid of them quickly, even if that means taking a hit on price, seems to be the preferred response. A recent presentation by the head of Chase’s retail-financial-services division showed that the company’s servicing portfolio went from having about 52,000 repossessed homes in September 2008 to only some 30,000 in September 2009. Over that period, the average price at which the firm sold houses from that stock dropped from $175,000 to $150,000.

Now, none of that means rent-backs won’t eventually take off. There are plenty of examples in recent past of housing policies starting at the federal housing agencies and later expanding industry-wide thanks to strong-arming from some combination of the Obama administration and Congress. Loan modifications are the quintessential example. Perhaps one more relevant bit here is the law that was passed earlier this year requiring banks that repossess houses to honor the terms of existing leases (i.e. to not immediately kick out any existing renters). Fannie Mae already had such a policy in place. Over the summer, an Assistant Secretary of the Treasury Department told a Senate panel that the administration was considering rent-backs, but the idea hasn’t gained traction since then.

After all, the big administration push has been loan modifications. Earlier this week, Treasury reported that through October more than 650,000 homeowners have received trial modifications under the government’s “Making Home Affordable” plan. How long lasting that help will be, though, is a different question. As of Sept. 1, only 1,711 borrowers had successfully completed the trial phase and received permanent changes to their loan terms, according to a report by the Congressional Oversight Panel.

If loan modifications aren’t the long-term success the administration is banking on, people will wind up losing their homes to foreclosure anyway, and the number of repossessed properties owned by banks will again rise. According to foreclosure tracker RealtyTrac, the number of foreclosure notices nationwide has been ticking down the past three months, but the number of notices is still running about 19 percent higher than last year. Considering high unemployment and how many people still owe more on their mortgages than their houses are worth, there might be a chance yet for attention to turn to the idea of renting houses back to former owners.

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