Reiss on the Poor Door

Law260 quoted me in ‘Poor Door’ A Symptom Of Tough Balancing Act In Housing (behind a paywall). It opens,

Extell Development Co.’s so-called “poor door” — a separate entrance for affordable housing tenants at a development on Riverside Drive — made headlines last week after receiving official approval, but experts say the controversy clouds the reality of balancing private and public housing interests in a city like New York.

The building and its “poor door” first caught the world’s attention last year, when the developer released renderings for the project that showed separate doors for condominium buyers and affordable rental tenants.

It wasn’t the first setup of its kind, particularly not in New York City, but with news of growing inequality around the country and especially in large urban areas, many criticized the separate door as classist and suggested that affordable housing tenants were being treated as “second-class citizens.”

The controversy erupted again last week when the Department of Housing Preservation and Development confirmed that it had approved Extell’s application for the department’s inclusionary housing program, which gives the developer access to certain incentives in exchange for adding to the city’s affordable housing inventory.

Many have argued that the trade-off may not be worth it: If developers that qualify for such programs end up relegating lower-income tenants to a separate entrance, are those tenants benefiting fully from the city’s efforts to house them?

“One reason that the ‘poor door’ issue touches a nerve is that real estate and class are so closely linked in New York City,” said David Reiss, a professor at Brooklyn Law School who focuses on real estate finance and community development. “Affordable housing units are seen as a great equalizer. The notion that someone living in an affordable housing unit must be constantly reminded of their status is repugnant to many.”

This has led to headlines around the world proclaiming Extell’s design and the city’s approval a “disgrace.” But experts say the question of what to do about such practices is not that simple.

Inclusionary housing has been a major tenet of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s plan to add or maintain 200,000 affordable housing units over the next decade. In a city with such high land prices and rents, it has become clear that developers need some kind of incentive to include affordable housing in their projects, and the mayor and city council have made a series of adjustments and concessions to get such housing into projects like the new Domino Sugar Factory development and under-construction buildings at Hudson Yards.

But just how affordable and market-rate housing should be built together in these developments has not been as closely considered, and experts say the “poor door” controversy may just be the first of many unanticipated issues in need of creative solutions.

To get around the issue of affordable units having different entrances or looking different and having different amenities from market-rate units, some have suggested making the units indistinguishable, but Reiss warns that this might cause additional problems.

“For instance, given a particular amount of funding for affordable housing, is it better to build fewer units of affordable housing that are indistinguishable from market-rate units in a Manhattan building, or is it better to build more units of affordable housing in an outer-borough — and therefore cheaper — building?” he said. “There is no right answer to that question. Each reflects a policy preference. But it is most important to realize that a trade-off between cost and number of units exists.”

Reiss on Big BoA FIRREA Penalty

Bloomberg BNA quoted me in FIRREA-Fueled Penalty Against BofA Signals More Risk for Large Institutions (behind a paywall). It reads in part,

A federal judge in New York ordered Bank of America to pay $1.26 billion in civil penalties to the U.S. government in connection with a Countrywide lending program, setting up a likely appeal in one of the most closely watched cases in the financial services arena (United States v. Bank of Am. Corp., S.D.N.Y., No. 12-cv-01422, 7/30/14).

The ruling by Judge Jed Rakoff of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York, which also said former Countrywide official Rebecca Mairone must pay $1 million in installments, followed an October jury verdict that found Bank of America liable for Countrywide’s sale of bad loans to Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, some of which were securitized.

Countrywide sold those loans under its “High-Speed Swim Lane” program—an initiative aimed at speeding the loan approval process and one launched before Bank of America acquired Countrywide in 2008.

Rakoff called the nine-month HSSL program “from start to finish the vehicle for a brazen fraud,” and imposed a $1,267,491,770 penalty on Bank of America.

The amount was less than the $2.1 billion sought by the government, but well above what Bank of America argued was appropriate, which was $1.1 million at the most .

“We believe that this figure simply bears no relation to a limited Countrywide program that lasted several months and ended before Bank of America’s acquisition of the company,” Bank of America spokesman Lawrence Grayson told Bloomberg BNA July 30. “We are reviewing the ruling and assessing our appellate options,” he said.

*     *      *

According to Rakoff, Firrea could have allowed a penalty in this case that would have equaled the value of the loan transaction itself, which totaled $2.96 billion.

Rakoff, citing the discretion granted to judges in such cases, reduced the penalty to $1.267 billion, saying not all of the loans were flawed.

Brooklyn Law School Professor David Reiss called Rakoff’s ruling significant and a new turn in an important area of case law for businesses.

“We’re beginning to see a jurisprudence of Firrea penalties and a penalty regime that is very pro-government,” Reiss told Bloomberg BNA. “This shows that the penalty can be as high as the nominal amount of the transaction. It’s good guidance in the sense that it helps businesses know the outer boundaries of their risk, but it’s a generous view of deterrence,” he said.

Good Data Makes Good Mortgages

The CFPB issued a proposed rule about increasing the quality of information that lenders report about mortgage applications. The press release regarding the proposed rule states that these changes will ease the reporting burden on lenders, and that may very well be true. But the contested part of these rules relate to the type of information to be collected:

  • Improving market information: In the Dodd-Frank Act, Congress directed the Bureau to update HMDA regulations by having lenders report specific new information that could help identify potential discriminatory lending practices and other issues in the marketplace. This new information includes, for example: the property value; term of the loan; total points and fees; the duration of any teaser or introductory interest rates; and the applicant’s or borrower’s age and credit score.
  • Monitoring access to credit: The Bureau is proposing that financial institutions provide more information about underwriting and pricing, such as an applicant’s debt-to-income ratio, the interest rate of the loan, and the total discount points charged for the loan. This information would help regulators determine how the Ability-to-Repay rule is impacting the market, and would also help the Bureau monitor developments in specific markets such as multi-family housing, affordable housing, and manufactured housing. The proposed rule would also require that covered lenders report, with some exceptions, all loans related to dwellings, including reverse mortgages and open-end lines of credit.

Lenders are not going to like this, because this new information may be used against them in a variety of ways — in Fair Housing lawsuits, by the CFPB in enforcement actions, by members of Congress seeking to increase credit access to various constituencies.

I like this because regulators and academic researchers have been hamstrung by limited and stale data on the fast-moving mortgage market. The mortgage market is often driven by the short-term profit-seeking of private actors and by special interests pushing their agendas with the Executive and Legislative Branches.  Good data can inform good decision-making that can ensure that the housing finance system is vibrant and provides sustainable credit for households over the long term.

Comments on the proposed rule are due by October 22, 2014.

 

NYC’s Abandoned Public Housing

The Community Service Society issued an important report, Strengthening New York City’s Public Housing. Public housing has a terrible reputation in much of the country, but the New York City Housing Authority traditionally had the reputation, notwithstanding its real flaws, as the best large public housing system in the nation. This report makes a strong case that many of its current flaws are the result of systemic disinvestment at the federal, state and local levels in recent years. The report concludes,

the analysis confirms the reality of the appalling living conditions in NYCHA apartments reported by residents and the media for several years. But the Authority’s reputation or its competence should not be at issue; it performed relatively well until its resource base fell apart in the period following 2001. Government defunding was and is the root cause of the accelerating deterioration over the last decade. The state and city were major contributors to that decline, often at levels equivalent to the federal disinvestment. They should be open to a major role in restoring NYCHA.

Moreover, existing institutional arrangements that make NYCHA opaque to public scrutiny need to be changed—those that mask the Authority’s financial condition and its failures to comply with local housing and building codes—because they cloak the real consequences of government defunding and, as a result, deprive residents, advocates, concerned elected officials, and the interested public of the information they could use as ammunition to press for needed resources. The NYCHA Board also needs to be freer to act as a leading advocate for the Authority. Its governance structure should be reconsidered to assure the Board the independent voice it needs to better make the case for itself and its residents. (27)

The de Blasio Administration has made affordable housing a centerpiece of its agenda, so there is reason to think that this report will get its attention. Let us hope so — there is a lot of solid infrastructure which just needs its deferred maintenance issues addressed. But the report also highlights various operational changes that can lead to real improvements in the lives of NYCHA residents.  These reforms could provide many low-income households with decent homes.

Financial Literacy Rehash

The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau released its second Financial Literacy Annual Report. In blogging about last year’s report, I noted that the CFPB assumed that financial education worked more than research had shown it to work. Unfortunately, this report seems to be mostly a rehash (in many cases an extensive word-for-word rehash) of last year’s (pace Senator Walsh). From what I could tell, the only significant new financial education research that the CFPB has undertaken since last year is its “rules of thumb” project.

“Rules of thumb” are a decision-making and education technique that uses practical, easily-implemented guidelines for making decisions. Existing research has found rules of thumb to be a successful technique for improving decision making in many areas, and more successful than comprehensive education in some instances. Thus, rules of thumb could be a cost-effective method to improve consumer decision making. However, little research exists examining the effectiveness of rules of thumb for financial decision making.

Accordingly, in 2014 the Bureau began a research project to study the effectiveness of rules-of-thumb-based approaches aimed at helping consumers decrease their credit card debt. Rules-of-thumb-based education may be particularly appropriate for improving consumer literacy about credit card use, as credit card decisions are repetitive and frequent. We have finished the first phase of the project to understand how to create rules of thumb, when they are most useful, and how they can be implemented to ensure maximum success. The second phase of the project will test a set of rules of thumb aimed at helping consumers decrease their credit card debt. When we release the final results, which are expected in 2015, we expect that this project will increase knowledge of the efficacy of a rules-of-thumb approach to financial education both within the CFPB and among a range of external stakeholders who serve consumers. (72-73, footnote omitted)

This seems like a great project for the CFPB to undertake. But the rest of its efforts to improve its understanding about the efficacy of financial literacy leaves me under, underwhelmed, particularly because the rule-of-thumb project is limited to just one consumer financial product, credit cards.

Reiss on Investing In Real Estate Versus REITs

Investopedia quoted me in Investing In Real Estate Versus REITs. It reads in part,

The U.S. real estate market is finally starting to fire on most, if not all, cylinders, with investors’ enthusiasm gathering steam seemingly each passing month.

According to a study from the Urban Land Institute and PwC,expectations on profitability from the U.S. real estate sector are on the upside going forward. “In 2010, only 18% of respondents felt the prospects for profitability were at a good or better level,” the ULI reports. “This has improved steadily each year, with 68% of respondents now feeling that profitability will be at least good in 2014.”

The study reports that myriad investment demographics are pouring into the market, including foreign investors, institutional investors and private equity funds, as well as leveraged debt from insurance companies, mezzanine lenders, and issuers of commercial mortgage-backed securities.

“The anticipated interest in secondary markets is indicative of how the U.S. real estate recovery is expanding beyond the traditional investment hubs,” says Patrick L. Phillips, chief executive officer at the ULI. “Access to greater amounts of both debt and equity financing, combined with a sustained improvement in the underlying economic fundamentals, means that the opportunities and returns offered in smaller markets are potentially very appealing.”

A burgeoning profit avenue for investors is the real estate investment trust market, a market that is truly growing by leaps and bounds. Ernst & Young reports the REIT (Real Estate Investment Trust) market has grown from $300 billion in 2003 to $1 trillion by 2013, with growth expected to accelerate going forward.

By definition, an REIT is a corporation, trust or association that owns and, in most cases, operates income-producing real estate and/or real estate-related assets. Modeled after mutual funds, REITs pool the capital of numerous investors. This allows individual investors to earn a share of the income produced through commercial real estate ownership, without having to go out and buy or finance property or assets.

REITs differ from traditional real estate investing, primarily due to the fund-heavy strategic asset flow from REITs, versus the traditional free, more direct access flow from real estate investing (like becoming a landlord or buying stocks from homebuilding companies.) But both investments offer distinct advantages

*    *     *

some industry experts say the advantages of both investment classes cut much deeper than the descriptions above.

One big difference is that the market for REIT shares is much closer to the efficient market described by Nobel Prize winner Eugene Fama than the market for individual real estate parcels is, says David Reiss, a professor of law at Brooklyn Law School, and an expert on REITs.

“That means that the price of a REIT’s shares is more likely to contain all available information about the REIT,” he says.

“Because individual real estate parcels are sold in much smaller markets and because the cost of due diligence on a single property is not as cost-effective as it is on REIT shares, an investor has a better opportunity, at least in theory, to get a better return on his or her investment if he or she does the diligence him or herself.”

Maine Really Doesn’t Like Lenders

I recently blogged in No MERS-y for Maine Lenders about a Maine Supreme Judicial Court opinion that seemed to go against the weight of authority as to a fundamental issue:  that the mortgage follows the note.

The lender in that Maine case, Bank of America, filed a Motion to Reconsider which the Court summarily denied. I think that the lender has it right on the law here and I quote from its motion:

The Court’s standing analysis conflicts with Maine’s Uniform Commercial Code (“UCC”) and sets Maine apart from other states (even those construing the same language that the Court finds of particular importance here). These persuasive authorities recognize MERS’s designation in a mortgage as a “nominee” and “mortgagee of record” does not prevent MERS from validly assigning all legal rights in the mortgage to a subsequent foreclosure plaintiff. The UCC “explicitly provides that . . . the assignment of the interest of the seller or other grantor of a security interest in the note automatically transfers a corresponding [beneficial] interest in the mortgage to the assignee.” Report of the Permanent Editorial Board for the Uniform Commercial Code 12 (Nov. 2011), available at http://www.uniformlaws.org/Shared/Committees_Materials/PEBUCC/PEB_Report_111411.pdf. The UCC further provides: “The attachment of a security interest in a right to payment or performance secured by a security interest or other lien on personal or real property is also attachment of a security interest in the security interest, mortgage or other lien.” 11 M.R.S. § 9-1203(7). The Editor’s Notes to this statutory provision confirm that it “codifies the common-law rule that a transfer of an obligation secured by a security interest or other lien on personal or real property also transfers the [beneficial interests in the] security interest or lien.” Id. cmt. 9. The UCC thus “adopts the traditional view that the mortgage follows the note; i.e., the transferee of the note acquires, as a matter of law, the beneficial interests in the mortgage, as well.” 11 M.R.S. § 9-1308 cmt. 6.

In these circumstances, “the UCC is unambiguous: the sale of a mortgage note (or other grant of a security interest in the note) not accompanied by a separate conveyance of the mortgage securing the note does not result in the mortgage being severed from the note.” Report of the Permanent Editorial Board for the Uniform Commercial Code 12 (emphasis added). Instead, by the explicit terms of the statute, the attachment of the note “is also attachment of a security interest in the . . . mortgage.” 11 M.R.S. § 9-1203(7). Thus, under the UCC, the beneficial interest in the mortgage travels with the note so holding the note in addition to the assignment from MERS of bare legal title means that party has everything necessary for standing under Section 6321. Thus, the Court was inconsistent with the UCC in stating that BANA’s right to enforce the Note (along with assignment of the legal title of the Mortgage by MERS) was not sufficient to show its requisite interest in the Mortgage. The Court should reconsider its analysis on this basis.

Moreover, this Court’s analysis stands in conflict with many other state and federal courts that have examined the issue. Many courts across the nation (in judicial and non-judicial foreclosures states alike) have determined that MERS can assign all rights under a mortgage in which it is named mortgagee as nominee for the lender and lender’s successors and assigns. (18-20, footnote omitted)

As I have acknowledged before, the Supreme Judicial Court is the final arbiter of Maine law. I think, nonetheless, that the Court got it wrong in this case. I also think that this summary denial of the well-argued motion for reconsideration does not do the issue justice.

 

HT Max Gardner