How to slow down foreclosures

By Felix Salmon
November 19, 2009
Peter Goodman's 2,300-word tale of Christopher Hall's foreclosure woes is a gem of a program in Philadelphia:

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Buried in Peter Goodman’s 2,300-word tale of Christopher Hall’s foreclosure woes is a gem of a program in Philadelphia:

Under the rules adopted by Philadelphia’s primary civil court, no owner-occupied house may be foreclosed on and sold by the sheriff’s office before a “conciliation conference,” a face-to-face meeting between the homeowner and the lender aimed at striking a workable compromise. Every homeowner facing a default filing is furnished with counseling, and sometimes legal representation…

Since the administration’s program was begun in March, it has been plagued by complaints of bureaucratic confusion and the indifference of mortgage companies. Many homeowners who have applied for loan modifications complain that their documents have been lost repeatedly or that they have been rejected without explanation.

The Philadelphia program forces an outcome by bringing together all the principals in one room. If the mortgage company proves intractable, the homeowner has the right to request mediation in front of a volunteer lawyer serving as a provisional judge, who relays recommendations to the program’s supervising judge. If the judge finds that the mortgage company is not acting in good faith, she can hold the house in limbo by denying permission for a sheriff’s sale.

This is a great idea: one of the biggest problems facing homeowners trying to come to some kind of a deal with their mortgage lender is that correspondence has a tendency to disappear into a black hole; that they find themselves dealing with an ever-rotating cast of customer service representatives who have a tendency to contradict each other and even themselves; and that constructive conversation, as opposed to a bureaucratic nightmare, is all but impossible.

The fact is that the banks simply don’t have enough trained and qualified personnel to be able to act in a sensible and intelligent manner with regard to each of the loan modification requests which are flooding in on a daily basis. But that’s the banks’ problem, and this Philadelphia scheme forces them to face up to it.

Daniel Indiviglio, I fear, doesn’t understand this at all, and seems to be living in an alternate universe where all bank decisions are entirely rational:

The bank is, ultimately, going to want to do whatever is in its best interest…

A face-to-face meeting won’t change that fact. And if foreclosure is a better alternative for the bank, then meeting in person won’t change that either. It’s a waste of time.

This might well be true: if foreclosure is in the bank’s best interest, then the in-person meeting won’t change that. But there is a very large number of foreclosures which aren’t in the bank’s best interest, and in-person meetings can change those outcomes for the better.

What’s more, even if any individual foreclosure might be in the bank’s best interest, it can also be in the bank’s best interest more generally to slow the whole process down:

In West Philadelphia, Councilman Curtis Jones Jr., one of the sponsors of the resolution, watched his childhood neighborhood consumed by foreclosure, as the homes of working families — their porches once lined with flower pots — were boarded up with plywood.

“It becomes a blight on your entire community,” Mr. Jones said. “It creates an environment that fosters everything bad, from prostitution to drug dealing to wildlife, like raccoons taking over whole houses. One house becomes 10, and 10 becomes the whole block.”

If banks face a situation where a wave of foreclosures can devastate property values, it’s in everybody’s interest to keep even defaulted homeowners in their homes for the time being, if only to preserve the value of the collateral. Schemes such as the one in Philadelphia can help break the vicious cycle of foreclosures leading to falling home prices leading to more foreclosures, and that’s good for all. I’d love to see the Philadelphia scheme rolled out in other cities struggling with this problem.

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