Great idea, hope it spreads. Joe Nocera:
There are few counties in America in as rough shape as San Bernardino County in California. During the housing bubble, the good times were very good. But then came the bust.
Today, San Bernardino County has one of the highest unemployment rates in the nation: 11.9 percent. Home prices have collapsed. Astonishingly, every second home is underwater, meaning the homeowner owes more on the mortgage than the house is worth. It is well documented that underwater mortgages have a high likelihood of defaulting — and, eventually, being foreclosed on. It has also been clear for some time that the best way to keep troubled homeowners in their homes is by reducing the principal on their mortgages, thus lowering their debt burden and more closely aligning their mortgage with the actual value of the home.
Which is why Greg Devereaux, the county’s chief executive officer, found himself listening intently when the folks from Mortgage Resolution Partners came knocking on his door. They had spent the previous year kicking around an intriguing idea: have localities buy underwater mortgages using their power of eminent domain — and then write the homeowner a new, reduced mortgage. It’s principal reduction using a stick instead of a carrot.
I know. When you first hear this idea, it sounds a little crazy. Eminent domain to take a mortgage? But the more closely you look at it, the more sense it starts to make. It would be a way to break the logjam that keeps mortgages in mortgage-backed bonds — securitizations — from being modified. It could prevent foreclosures. And it could finally stabilize housing prices.
[...] The securitization industry is up in arms about this proposal. In late June, after the plan was leaked to Reuters, some 18 organizations, including the Association of Mortgage Investors, wrote a threatening letter to the San Bernardino board of supervisors claiming that the plan would inflict “significant harm” to homeowners in the county. For his part, Devereaux insists that no final decision has been made. But, he says, “this is the first idea that anyone has approached us with that has the potential to have a real impact on our economy.” Other cities are watching closely to see what happens in San Bernardino.
We’re four years into a housing crisis. Nothing has yet worked to stem the terrible tide of foreclosures. It’s time to give eminent domain a try.