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Originally published Saturday, May 25, 2013 at 8:04 PM

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Mortgage loan relief slow in coming, analysis shows

Banking-industry officials and regulators say the scale and complexity of the settlements have grown over the years, making them difficult to execute quickly.

The Washington Post

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WASHINGTON — Banks have paid less than half the $5.7 billion in cash owed to troubled homeowners under nearly 30 settlements brokered by the government since 2008, delaying help to the millions of victims of discrimination and shoddy lending that epitomized the housing crisis, according to a Washington Post analysis of government data.

When the settlements were announced with great fanfare, government officials hailed them as the long-promised reckoning with the financial industry. Regulators found that some banks had saddled borrowers with unaffordable mortgages or assigned higher rates to minorities even when they qualified for a better deal. Some banks were accused of having employees “robo-sign” foreclosure documents without reading them or having proper documentation.

But consumer advocates and lawmakers have grown increasingly frustrated by the delays in releasing the settlement funds, which they say is making it difficult for some borrowers to recover financially.

In 2011, Wells Fargo agreed to compensate up to 10,000 borrowers after the Federal Reserve found the bank was steering them into subprime loans even though they qualified for better mortgages. But no borrowers have received money yet.

Last year, Bank of America agreed to pay some borrowers between $1,000 and $5,000 for what the Justice Department called lending discrimination by illegally asking some would-be homebuyer who relied on disability income to provide a doctor’s letter verifying the severity of their ailment. But it’s still unclear how many people will ultimately be paid. There isn’t a full list of the victims.

The agreements are coming under increased scrutiny from state authorities who are concerned the banks are not living up to their obligations to help homeowners. The New York attorney general recently threatened to take Bank of America and Wells Fargo to court to force the banks to comply with a large national agreement to offer struggling borrowers help.

“These settlements are a reflection of the dismal response from the federal government and the banks to consumers who got bad mortgages,” said John Taylor, chief executive of the National Community Reinvestment Coalition, a consumer advocacy group. “Their needs got pushed behind taking care of the banks.”

Banking-industry officials and regulators say the scale and complexity of the settlements have grown over the years, making them difficult to execute quickly. They can involve multiple agencies, banks, lawyers and consultants. In some cases, banks are still identifying people affected or waiting for borrowers to respond to notifications of eligibility. There are also a number of cases in which banks have yet to zero in on how much they will pay out.

“There’s a common misunderstanding that all this information is readily available and banks can just push a button and get the checks printed, and that’s not the case,” said Gilbert Schwartz, a banking lawyer at Schwartz & Ballen. “It requires thorough review, confirmation and validation that the amounts and the people receiving it are accurate.”

In the meantime, borrowers such as Elizabeth Rizo, 40, have been waiting for years. In 2009, GMAC Mortgage, which is now known as Ally Financial, foreclosed on her two-story Tennessee home. The foreclosure occurred while she was negotiating with the lender to lower her monthly mortgage payments, a “dual-tracking” process common among some mortgage servicers, but which regulators have attempted to stop.

“We woke up one morning and there was a man on our lawn taking pictures of the house. He told us he had just bought the house at auction,” said Rizo, who now lives in Redwood City, Calif. “We couldn’t understand, because we were in contact with the bank the entire time.”

It wasn’t until last month that she received a letter from Ally, which had agreed to compensate borrowers for improper foreclosures in a large mortgage settlement, indicating that her case was under review. “I have no doubt that we’ll receive something because what they did was so wrong,” Rizo said.

It is still unclear how much she will receive or when. Ally officials say the bank is making progress on reviewing such cases but isn’t ready to pay anyone. They declined to comment on her case in particular.

In some cases, the money being provided will not be enough to address the problems homeowners are facing.

Marta Cruz and her husband were among the 29,000 borrowers notified in April by SunTrust that they were eligible for a portion of a $21 million settlement the bank reached with the Justice Department. Prosecutors say that from 2005 to 2009, the bank charged minority borrowers higher broker fees and interest rates than white borrowers.

Cruz, 50, a nanny who lives in Germantown, Md., is expecting between $500 and $1,000 in restitution. But that won’t be enough to address her larger problem: Cruz’s $325,000 home is now worth $180,000, and she is struggling to make the payments of $2,100 a month. SunTrust has not been willing to modify her mortgage to make the payments more affordable, Cruz said.

SunTrust declined to comment on Cruz’s case, citing customer confidentiality, but said it was in compliance with the Justice Department agreement. “Additionally, we work with clients experiencing financial hardship regarding potential options to assist in maintaining homeownership,” the company said in a statement.

Critics point to the 2011 agreement the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency (OCC) and the Federal Reserve struck with more than a dozen mortgage servicers as a prime example of the dysfunction. After regulators identified flawed foreclosure processes, including shoddy paperwork, the servicers, including Bank of America and JPMorgan Chase, agreed to assist homeowners.

But in order to determine how much each borrower was owed, the banks planned to review each foreclosure. After 12 months, no homeowners had received a dime. But the eight consultants managing the process on behalf of the banks were paid nearly $2 billion.

Regulators struck a new agreement with most of the banks involved, including $3.6 billion in direct payments to homeowners.

“I think that the OCC, the Fed, greatly underestimated the complexity of the task,” Daniel Stepano, deputy chief counsel for the OCC, told the Senate banking committee at a hearing in April. “The large number of institutions, independent consultants and counsel involved in the process ... required substantial regulatory oversight.”

So far, more than 3 million borrowers have received checks, some for more than $100,000.

But when the first few checks were distributed in April some bounced. Another batch of checks sent to nearly 100,000 borrowers were for less than they were owed. And despite the big sticker price of the agreement, more than half of the borrowers affected will receive no more than $300.

There are also thousands of homeowners still in the dark about whether they are entitled to any sort of relief. Ally Financial, One West and Everbank did not agree to the revised settlement and are still reviewing foreclosures one by one.

One West declined to comment, and Ally said it is still reviewing the contested foreclosures. An Everbank spokesman said in a statement, “We are continuing with our independent review and expect that we will complete that review by midyear.”

Problems are also emerging in the largest mortgage settlement — a $25 billion deal between state and federal authorities and five banks accused of using forged paperwork to quickly foreclose on struggling homeowners.

The banks agreed to pay $1.5 billion directly to borrowers. So far, no checks have been sent, though the first are likely to go out later this month. It has taken more than a year to find the correct addresses, verify information and receive responses from all of the borrowers who lost their homes, government officials said.

The loudest complaints about the settlement are coming from some of the very people who brokered it. Earlier this month, New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, one of 49 attorneys general involved in the deal, threatened to sue Bank of America and Wells Fargo for failing to help struggling homeowners.

The state prosecutor says he has received 339 complaints from homeowners about the behemoth banks dragging their feet in processing loan modifications that would lower their mortgage payments — a direct violation of the settlement.

Officials at Bank of America and Wells Fargo have said they are looking into the issues raised.

Despite the complaints, some authorities say having a court-appointed monitor has kept the settlement largely on track. The monitor, Joseph Smith, is expected to release a report on lenders’ compliance with the settlement agreement next month.

“There’s no middleman. Funds aren’t going into some bank’s escrow account and then drawn out from there. It’s going basically from the court to the homeowner,” said Maryland Attorney General Douglas Gansler.

As for the Justice Department’s cases, Debby Goldberg, special project director at the National Fair Housing Alliance, said, “Everybody, aside from the banks involved, would like to see more money going to people, but the settlements are pretty straightforward in the way they work.”

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