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Editor: David Reiss
Brooklyn Law School

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July 21, 2015

Showdown at the Dakota

By David Reiss

"The Dakota May 2005" by Makemake at the German language Wikipedia. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons - https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:The_Dakota_May_2005.jpg#/media/File:The_Dakota_May_2005.jpg

Jeremy Cohen, a partner with Wolf Haldenstein Adler Freeman & Herz, and I discussed a lawsuit brought by a New York City co-op owner who says he’s been unable to move into his apartment at the famed Dakota coop for 16 years.

We spoke with June Grasso on Bloomberg Radio’s “Bloomberg Law” show. The podcast of the show is here and the complaint in the case is here. A Bloomberg news story summarizes the allegations:

Robert Siegel, chief executive officer of Metropole Realty Advisors Inc., said in his lawsuit that he paid $2.23 million in 1999 for an apartment at the Dakota and has never spent a night there because the board refused to approve his renovation plans and took part of his unit as storage space for the building. He’s seeking $55 million in damages and a court order allowing him to make the renovations.

“These bad-faith acts foreclosed the possibility of Mr. Siegel constructing bedrooms there and thus ensured that the apartment could not be used by Mr. Siegel and his family,” according to the June 29 complaint, filed in New York State Supreme Court.

Before buying the street-level duplex at the building on 72nd Street and Central Park West — once home to celebrities such as John Lennon and Lauren Bacall — Siegel got permission from the co-op board to convert the lower level into four bedrooms with air conditioning for his children, according to the lawsuit. Once the sale was complete, the board said it would only approve Siegel’s plans if he agreed to buy additional shares of Dakota co-operative stock for $1.8 million, which would about double his monthly maintenance charges, according to the complaint.

After Siegel refused to make the additional payments, the board voted to reclassify half of Siegel’s apartment as “non-habitable storage space,” according to the lawsuit. The board also barred him from adding air conditioning or ventilation to the lower level, thereby making it unsuitable for bedrooms, according to the complaint.

July 21, 2015 | Permalink | No Comments

Tuesday’s Regulatory & Legislative Round-Up

By Serenna McCloud

July 21, 2015 | Permalink | No Comments

July 20, 2015

The Prime Crisis

By David Reiss

Ben Franklin, Founder of the University of Pennsylvania

Fernando Ferreira and Joseph Gyourko, both at Penn’s Wharton School, have posted A New Look at the U.S. Foreclosure Crisis: Panel Data Evidence of Prime and Subprime Borrowers from 1997 to 2012 to SSRN. Unfortunately it is behind a National Bureau of Economic Research paywall. The paper makes the case for “a reinterpretation of the U.S. foreclosure crisis as more of a prime, rather than a subprime, borrower issue.” (1) The authors conclude,

The housing bust and its consequences are among the defining economic events of the past quarter century. Constructing and analyzing new and very large micro data spanning the cycle and all sectors of the mortgage market leads us to reinterpret the ensuing foreclosure crisis as something much more than a subprime sector issue. Many more homes were lost by prime mortgage borrowers, and their loss rates not only increased relatively early in the crisis, but stayed high through 2012. This new characterization of the crisis motivates a very different empirical strategy from previous research on this topic. Rather than focus solely on the subprime sector and subprime traits, we turn to the traditional home mortgage default literature that explains outcomes in terms of common factors such as negative equity and borrower illiquidity.

The key empirical finding is that negative equity conditions can explain virtually all of the difference in foreclosure and short sale outcomes of Prime borrowers compared to all Cash owners. This is true on average, over time (including the spike in their foreclosure rate beginning in 2009), and across metropolitan areas. Given the predominance of this group in terms of foreclosures and short sales, this is tantamount to explaining the crisis itself. We can explain much, but not all, of the variation in Subprime borrower outcomes in terms of negative equity or borrower illiquidity conditions, so something potentially ‘special’ about the subprime sector still is unaccounted for. That said, it also could be that a less noisy measure of borrower illiquidity would be able to account for this residual variation. That remains for future research.

None of the other ‘usual suspects’ raised by previous research or public commentators change this conclusion. Housing quality traits, household demographics (race or gender), buyer income, and speculator status do not have a material influence on outcomes across borrower types. Certain loan-related attributes such as initial LTV, whether a refinancing occurred or a second mortgage was taken on, and loan cohort origination quarter do have some independent influence, but they are much weaker than that of current LTV. (27)

I will have to leave it to other empiricists to evaluate whether this sure-to-be-controversial study is methodologically sound, but I sure did find their policy conclusion to be interesting:

We are not able to provide a definitive recommendation one way or another, but we can rule out one noteworthy reason offered for not aiding homeowners—namely, that the crisis was mostly about irresponsible subprime sector actors (both lenders and borrowers) who were undeserving of transfers. Of course, this is not to say that there was no such behavior. The evidence from other research and serious journalists is that there was. However, it is clear from the passage of time (and the accumulation and analysis of new data that provides) that the problem was much more widespread and systemic.  (28)

Hopefully, this is a lesson that we can take with us into the next (inevitable) housing crisis so we lay the foundation for policy solutions based on facts and not rely on moral judgments about borrowers that are built on shaky ground.

July 20, 2015 | Permalink | No Comments

Monday’s Adjudication Roundup

By Shea Cunningham

July 20, 2015 | Permalink | No Comments

July 17, 2015

Bank Break-ins

By David Reiss

"Balaclava 3 hole black" by Tobias "ToMar" Maier. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons - https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Balaclava_3_hole_black.jpg#/media/File:Balaclava_3_hole_black.jpg

Chris Odinet has posted Banks, Break-Ins, and Bad Actors in Mortgage Foreclosure to SSRN. The abstract reads,

During the housing crisis banks were confronted with a previously unknown number mortgage foreclosures, and even as the height of the crisis has passed lenders are still dealing with a tremendous backlog. Overtime lenders have increasingly engaged third party contractors to assist them in managing these assets. These property management companies — with supposed expertise in the management and preservation of real estate — have taken charge of a large swathe of distressed properties in order to ensure that, during the post-default and pre-foreclosure phases, the property is being adequately preserved and maintained. But in mid-2013 a flurry of articles began cropping up in newspapers and media outlets across the country recounting stories of people who had fallen behind on their mortgage payments returning home one day to find that all of their belongings had been taken and their homes heavily damaged. These homeowners soon discovered that it was not a random thief that was the culprit, but rather property management contractors hired by the homeowners’ mortgage servicer.

The issues arising from these practices have become so pervasive that lawsuits have been filed in over 30 states, and legal aid organizations in California, Florida, Michigan, Nevada, and New York report that complaints against lender-engaged property managements firms number among their top grievances. This Article analyzes lender-engaged property management firms and these break-in foreclosure activities. In doing so, the paper makes a three-part call to action, which includes the implementation of bank contractor oversight regulations, the creation of a private cause of action for aggrieved homeowners, and the curtailment of property preservation clauses in mortgage contracts.

This is a timely article about a cutting edge issue. All too often I have heard pro-bank lawyers claim that banks almost never foreclose improperly. The news reports and lawsuits discussed in this article counter that claim. And yet, I hope that some empirically-minded person could quantify the frequency of such misbehavior to better inform policymakers going forward.

July 17, 2015 | Permalink | No Comments

Friday’s Government Reports Roundup

By Shea Cunningham

July 17, 2015 | Permalink | No Comments

July 16, 2015

Dodd-Frank and Mortgage Reform at Five

By David Reiss

"Seal on United States Department of the Treasury on the Building" by MohitSingh - Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons - https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Seal_on_United_States_Department_of_the_Treasury_on_the_Building.JPG#/media/File:Seal_on_United_States_Department_of_the_Treasury_on_the_Building.JPG

The Department of Treasury has issued a report, Dodd-Frank at Five Years: Reforming Wall Street and Protecting Main Street. The report is clearly a political document, trumpeting the achievements of the Obama Administration. It is interesting nonetheless. It opens,

When President Obama took office in January 2009, the U.S. economy was in crisis. The nation was shedding more than 750,000 jobs per month, and confidence in our financial system had been shaken to its core. The worst financial crisis since the Great Depression exposed a toxic mix of excessive risk-taking, shoddy lending practices, inadequate capital levels, unstable funding, and weaknesses in regulatory oversight. A collapsing financial system choked off credit to consumers seeking to purchase a car, a home, groceries, or to finance an education. Nearly 9 million Americans lost their jobs, and over 5 million lost their homes. Nearly $13 trillion of families’ wealth was destroyed, wiping out almost two decades of gains.

In response to the crisis, the Administration released a proposed set of reforms in June 2009. Congress held numerous hearings and crafted legislation based on the Administration’s proposal, incorporating ideas from both Republicans and Democrats throughout the process. On July 21, 2010, President Obama signed the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act into law, a historic and comprehensive set of financial reforms, which put in place critical new protections for consumers, investors, and taxpayers. Five years later—as a result of Dodd-Frank and other Wall Street reforms—our financial system is stronger, safer, more resilient, and more supportive of sustainable economic growth. Regulators also have better tools to deal with financial shocks when they occur, to protect Main Street and taxpayers from Wall Street recklessness.

Critics of reform have claimed that Wall Street Reform would deter lending and choke off the recovery. But, today it is clear that the opposite is true. Reform has served as a building block for economic growth, providing Americans with safe places to invest their savings and enabling banks to lend to individuals, businesses, and communities. Only a financial system strong enough to withstand a major financial shock is capable of promoting sustainable economic growth. Five years after the President signed Wall Street Reform into law, nearly all of the major elements of financial reform are in place. Today, our financial system is safer and stronger as a result of these hard-won reforms, and our economy is in a far better position to continue growing and creating jobs. (1)

I was struck by the fact that the report does not address the biggest financial reform failure of the last five years, the lack of reform of the housing finance system.  Fannie and Freddie remain in conservatorship, putting the housing finance system at risk of another crisis.

I was also struck by the following passage:

In the run-up to the financial crisis, abusive lending practices and unclear underwriting standards resulted in risky mortgages which hurt consumers and ultimately threatened financial stability. Wall Street Reform bans many of the abusive practices in mortgage markets that helped cause the crisis, and requires lenders to determine that borrowers can repay their loans. (2)

My recollection from academic conferences over the course of the last six or seven years is that many leading academics denied the link between abusive lending practices and systemic risk. It seemed pretty clear to me, but I was in the minority on that one. I am glad to see that at least the Treasury agrees with me.

July 16, 2015 | Permalink | No Comments