The settlement announced on Feb. 9 has been publicly released so far only in a broad outline of its terms. Any day now the actual agreement will be finalized and filed at court. In the meantime here are some tantalizing tidbits.

More than a month has passed since the announcement of the long-awaited mortgage settlement by the state attorneys general and the federal government with the five largest mortgage loan servicers. A special website, set up by the Attorneys General on the Executive Committee that negotiated the settlement, provides a 4-page “Settlement Fact Sheet” and also a “Settlement Executive Summary” of similar length. This website also provides some other possibly helpful information like the phone numbers for the loan servicers involved and the address, phone number and website of each state’s attorney general. But none of that is going to get you very far in any practical way because in fact the details of the settlement are still being put into writing. The “National Mortgage Settlement” has in fact not quite been settled, at least not in detail. As the website says, it’s still “coming soon.”

It’s worth reading the relatively short “Fact Sheet” and the “Executive Summary,” and to look through the rest of the website. Here are some aspects of the deal from those sources that may surprise you:

  • Although 5 loan servicers are involved in this settlement, one stands out, Bank of America, because it is obligated to pay more than twice as much as any of the others. It’s expected to pay (through a combination of cash payments, mortgage write-downs, and refinances) about $12 billion. Much of B of A’s financial exposure comes from its ownership of a huge portfolio of former Countrywide mortgages.
  • The largest portion of the settlement funds—about $10 billion—will go towards reducing the principal balance of mortgages. The banks have been extremely resistant to principal reductions, and this settlement requires the largest reductions ever. However, the amount is still very small compared to the total amount of negative equity among these banks’ homeowners.
  • In an effort to beef up the enforcement side of the settlement, an independent Monitor has been named who will have what at least sounds like significant powers to enforce a detailed set of new mortgage servicing standards. Penalties for violations will be up to $1 million per violation, and up to $5 million for some repeat violations.
  • The mortgage servicers will receive credit for different efforts they make to help their homeowners. The banks will get credit for mortgage write-downs, but also partial credit for write-downs by investors on mortgages that the banks do not own but merely service, as well as for helpful actions banks are already taking like approving short-sales. The compromise was to provide as much benefit as possible to homeowners while giving banks some flexibility in earning credit for their efforts.

The effectiveness of this settlement will depend on how strongly the written agreement is drafted. I’ll provide practical information about this written agreement just as soon as it is filed at court, so please check back here again.

The long-awaited joint federal-state settlement with the major banks for their alleged fraudulent documentation and processing of mortgages and foreclosures was announced on Thursday, February 9. Will it help you, and if so, how?

I interrupt my ongoing series on small business bankruptcy to answer your most immediate questions about this huge settlement.

1. Who is included in this settlement?

  • Only five big banks are currently signed on: Bank of America, Wells Fargo, J.P. Morgan Chase, Ally Financial and Citigroup.  Only mortgages owned and held by them are directly affected.  Negotiations continue with nine other mortgage servicers, which if successful could bring the total amount of money involved to $30 billion.
  • 49 states joined in the settlement; only Oklahoma did not.
  • Mortgages held by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac—consisting of the majority of U.S. mortgages—are NOT covered.

2. What does this settlement resolve and what is open for further negotiation and litigation? In other words, what liabilities are the banks escaping from for their $26 billion?

  • The claims against the banks that are released in this settlement are limited to mortgage servicing and foreclosure claims. Claims for a variety of other alleged wrongdoing are not covered and so remain open to being pursued by the federal and state regulators, investors, and homeowners. Claims that are NOT covered include those related to the securitization of mortgage-backed securities that were at the heart of the financial crisis, and those against or involving MERS (Mortgage Electronic Registration Systems).
  • Individuals’ rights to bring their own lawsuits or to be part of a class action against any banks for any claims are not affected by this settlement.
  • The settlement does not limit any potential criminal liability for any individuals or financial institutions; it provides no immunity from prosecution whatsoever.

3. How does the settlement help you if your mortgage is held by one of these five banks?

  • If you need a mortgage loan modification, these servicers will (finally!) be required to offer principal reductions, for first and second mortgages, to a value of up to $17 billion. This is where the bulk of the settlement funds are earmarked.
  • If you’re current on your mortgage but your home is worth less than the mortgage, $3 billion of the settlement is to provide refinancing relief.
  • If your home has already been foreclosed, $1.5 billion will be paid out by the banks as a penalty against them–around  $2,000 per homeowner–without you needing to show any damages or releasing any claims against the bank.

4. Where do you go for more information and to find out whether you will be helped in any of these ways?

  • Go to the new settlement website for current and upcoming information about it:

The multibillion-dollar deal, more than a year in negotiations between the biggest home mortgage servicers on one side and the states’ attorneys general and federal agencies on the other, may be just days from being finished. The deadline for each state’s attorney general to decide whether to sign was Friday, February 3, but that has now been extended to Monday, February 6.

This settlement is to resolve allegations about an extensive series of foreclosure and mortgage loan-servicing abuses that came to light in the summer and fall of 2010. State and federal officials have since then been negotiating an agreement with five major mortgage servicers. It would provide some very specific mortgage relief to homeowners and would establish strict requirements for how banks could conduct foreclosures. The negotiations have gone back and forth, with various proposals being floated, resulting in very public displays of protest by various bank-friendly sets of attorneys general on one hand and by other more aggressive attorneys general on the other. A settlement now looks imminent, in large part because of the timing of the current election cycle, as well as the dire need for progress on the never-ending home foreclosure front —and because this has dragged on for so long.

Since this story is evolving every day, I’m going to provide you with a few recent news articles about it, introducing each one to help you decide if you want to look at it.

This USA Today article gets right to what we all care about, “Who benefits from possible $25B mortgage settlement?”  It’s actually a good summary—in a Q&A format—of the likely terms of the settlement and its effects on homeowners and the housing market. Some of the questions include: “How might the $25B be spent?” “Who will get [mortgage] principal reductions?” “How tough are the potential settlement terms on the banks?

“Mortgage deal would give states enforcement clout” from Reuters addresses the concern “that banks have not adequately followed through on prior settlements, a concern that has pushed government negotiators to establish more forceful enforcement mechanisms in this deal than have been used in the past.” So this deal gives the states, along with a separate “monitoring committee,” the power to go to court to enforce the terms of the settlement and to ask for penalties of up to $5 million per violation.

And if you want to get a taste of how complicated these negotiations have been on the technical side (without even accounting for the intense political pressures), here is a letter dated January 27, 2012 from the Nevada Attorney General to the officials who have been spearheading the settlement. In the letter, she asks for written answers to 38 questions so that her state can decide whether or not to sign on to the settlement. It’ll make your head spin. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

Is the most infamous home mortgage story of late 2010—the “robo-signing” of foreclosure documents—finally coming to closure in early 2012?

For those of us who keep an eye on this stuff, we’ve wondered throughout all of 2011 whether the states’ attorneys general could do what the federal banking and housing regulators seemed unable to do: hold the mortgage lenders responsible for their glaring problems in loan servicing and foreclosure processing.  “Robo-signing” itself involved loan servicing company employees signing countless foreclosure documents in which they asserted personal knowledge about essential facts, when in fact those employees had no knowledge whatsoever of those facts. This then led to the uncovering of one major set of irregularities after another, including the giant MERS fiasco involving serious challenges to the legal authority of mortgage lenders and servicers to foreclose under any circumstances.

When all 50 of the states’ attorneys general got together in late fall of 2010 to address this set of problems, there was hope that they would be able to accomplish what the national regulators could or would not. They were seen as being closer to Main Street than Wall Street, and experienced with dealing pragmatically with both consumer abuses and business concerns. Indeed within a few months detailed draft settlement terms were drafted and being circulated. But then major rifts quickly arose. Last spring, eight Republican attorneys general—from Virginia, Texas, Florida, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Alabama, Georgia and Nebraska—announced that they did not support the draft settlement as being too tough on the banks and unfair to people who were paying their mortgages. Around the same time, the watchdog National Institute on Money in State Politics issued a report stating that the “campaign war chest” of the Democratic attorney general Tom Miller of Iowa

“got a dramatic boost after he announced his leadership of the 50-state attorneys general investigation into foreclosure irregularities. Out-of-state law firms and donors from the finance, insurance, and real estate sector gave $261,445-which is 88 times more than they had given him over the previous decade.”

And now more recently, as the settlement again seems to be finally reaching a close, some of the more liberal attorneys general, from among the most populous and influential states, such as New York and California, as well as perhaps Massachusetts, Nevada, and Delaware, seem to be backing out of the deal because they say that their homeowners would simply not be getting adequately compensated by the banks.

So is there going to be a deal or not, whether it covers all 50 states or not? It certainly now looks highly unlikely that a universal 50-state agreement will happen. And if some of the largest states—such as California and New York—and some with the worst foreclosure problems—such as Nevada and Florida—are not participating, then the banks lose a great deal of incentive to stay in the deal either. There continues to be some indication that a settlement will come together—here’s a very recent Time magazine blogger’s summary of its anticipated terms, which he figures will be “finally unveiled” as early as January. You can read about them there it you want—I won’t be telling you more about any deal terms here until I think there’s a better chance that it will ever come to pass and have any practical impact on my clients.

A temporary federal law gives renters some protections against getting evicted from their homes when a bank forecloses on their landlord. The “Protecting Tenants at Foreclosure Act” is short—only two pages—and simple: after the completion of a foreclosure of a home or apartment building, the new owners of the property must allow  renters to continue staying there for either 90 days or through the end of their lease, whichever is longer. So even with a month-to-month rental, the renter would be allowed to stay for 90 days after the foreclosure. Of course have to pay rent and fulfill their side of bargain while they remain on the property.

Why has this been a problem? The public focus during this long foreclosure crisis has been on the millions of homeowners losing their single family homes. But many of these homes are in fact rented out to others. And there are also many foreclosures of multiunit residences—everything from duplexes to apartment buildings. In fact research by the National Low Income Housing Coalition estimated that “renters represent as many as 40% of the American families who will lose their homes in this crisis.”

While homeowners have long had an established set of protections during the foreclosure process, renters have had virtually none. Renters often had no idea that their landlord had fallen behind on mortgage payments and that their home was being foreclosed.  They found out only after the foreclosure sale had occurred and the bank or the new owner shocked them with eviction papers. The “Protecting Tenants at Foreclosure Act” provides at least a modest cushion of time in almost all situations, and the right to the full term of their lease for tenants who bargained for such longer leases.

This straightforward law contains very few exceptions. It does not apply if the tenant is also the owner of the property being foreclosed, or the owner’s spouse, child, or parent. The rental agreement must be genuine, and must provide for payment of rent at about fair market value (or with a legitimate governmental subsidy). Also, if after the foreclosure the new owner intends to live in the home as his or her primary residence, then the tenant must surrender the property after 90 days even he or she has a longer term.

This law is temporary in that it was to expire at the end of 2012. Last year’s financial reform law has extended that expiration to the end of 2014.

Maybe the most important part of the “Protecting Tenants at Foreclosure Act” is that it sets a threshold standard, but also explicitly states that it shall not “affect the requirements… of any State or local law that provides longer time periods or other additional protections for tenants.” During these last two years many states have recognized the need for tenant protections. If you are a tenant in a house or apartment that you are afraid is being foreclosed upon, contact our office to set up a consultation to discuss this and any other financial concerns you may have.