Can NYS Rename Trump State Park?

 

photo by Jeffrey Putman

Politifact quoted me in Can New York State Rename Donald J. Trump State Park? It reads,

Even after officially decamping for Palm Beach, Fla., former President Donald Trump has continued to stir emotions in his previous home state of New York.

New York Assemblywoman Sandy Galef, a Democrat, said she believes a park currently named for Trump north of New York City should be renamed. Trump donated the land for the park, and it was agreed at the time it would be named after him.

In a Jan. 14 letter to Erik Kulleseid, the Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation Commissioner in New York, Galef wrote, “It is my understanding that Mr. Trump did not sign the appropriate documents with the state, rendering any claim of breach of contract moot. We can and should rename the park.”

In an interview, Galef added that the park “really hasn’t been fixed up” and that efforts to do so would be hobbled by having Trump’s name on it. Galef said she believes the park should instead be named after former New York Gov. George Pataki, a Republican.

“Around this area, when you have ‘Trump’ on the name of something, it doesn’t go over very well,” Galef said. “My concern is that people aren’t going to want to put money into Trump Park, whether it’s state dollars or any private dollars.”

Galef has support in her quest to rename the park: On Feb. 11, a bill advanced in the Assembly to continue talks on renaming the park.

But the former president may pursue litigation against the state if the Parks Department decides to rename the park, a Trump spokesman said.

“Despite the fact that the state has done a horrible job running and maintaining the park in question, an utter disgrace to such incredible land and a generous donation, the conditions of this gift, formally documented and accepted by the state of New York, could not be clearer: the park must bear Trump’s name,” Trump’s office said in a statement. “This would be breaching its agreement by removing Trump’s name, and Trump will take whatever legal action that may be necessary to fully enforce his rights under this agreement.”

Is Galef right that New York state could change the name without too much difficulty? The answer isn’t clear enough for us to render a Truth-O-Meter verdict. But we decided to take a look at the issue and explain what we found.

How the park came to be

Donald J. Trump State Park sits on the border of Putnam and Westchester counties along the Taconic Parkway. Trump gave the land to New York State in 2006 after the former president failed in building a golf course on it.

The land deed for the property does not include any naming provisions, but the state named the park after Trump based on a letter of agreement between the Parks Department and Trump’s lawyers.

The letter outlined several terms, one of which is the following: “Each of the properties will bear a name which includes Mr. Trump’s name, in acknowledgment of these gifts. The name will be prominently displayed at least at each entrance to each property.”

The letter includes signatures by Trump’s lawyers and by Trump himself, and it was “acknowledged and accepted” by James Sponable, who was then the Parks Department’s director of real property.

The New York State Attorney General’s office referred questions about the park’s possible renaming to the Parks Department. The Parks Department did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

But legal experts say it isn’t clear how ironclad the terms in the letter are.

“The land is called a gift, so this seems to be memorializing the terms of a gift,” David Reiss, a real estate law specialist at Brooklyn Law School, told PolitiFact. “So, one question is, ‘What’s the enforceability of this letter?’ It’s not obvious to me that this would be analyzed as a contractual dispute.”

Reiss said because the letter does not clearly state that it is a binding contract, it is unclear how a court would treat it if the state were to rename the park and Trump legally challenged it.

“The letter says, ‘We have this understanding,’ but it doesn’t say what would happen if the understanding isn’t held to,” Reiss said. “It doesn’t say what would happen if, at some later time, it changed. There is no promise that the naming would be perpetual. So it’s unclear what Trump’s rights would be to enforce this based on the language of this document.”

Ultimately, Reiss said, “the one sure thing is there could be a lot of litigation about these issues, if the parties chose to litigate.”

A possible plan B

As an alternative, Galef said Trump’s name could be removed from a sign on the Taconic Parkway, which is the most common way for motorists to see it. The letter “doesn’t say you have to have a sign on the Taconic Parkway, … That could come down,” Galef said in the interview.

Reiss, the legal expert, agreed with Galef’s interpretation and said that it might be a feasible option.

“The sign on the Taconic is not the entrance of the park, so you could comply with the letter and still take that sign down,” he said. “It might be confusing to people if you say, ‘Unnamed State Park, next right,” but if you stuck to the black letter of this letter, you could say, ‘Right at the entrance of the park is where we’re going to put the sign, but nowhere before.’”

Housing Finance Reform Endgame?

The Hill published my column, There is Hope of Housing Finance Reform That Works for Americans.  It opens,

The Trump administration released its long awaited housing finance reform report and it is a game changer. The report makes clear that it is game over for the status quo of leaving Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac in their conservatorship limbo. Instead, it sets forth concrete steps to recapitalize and release the two entities. This has been a move that investors, particularly vulture investors who bought in after the two companies entered into their conservatorships, have clamored for.

It is not, however, one that is in the best interests of homeowners and taxpayers. The report recognizes that there are better alternatives. Indeed, it explicitly states that the “preference and recommendation is that Congress enact comprehensive housing finance reform legislation.” But the report also states that the conservatorships, which are more than a decade old, have gone on for too long. So the report throws down a gauntlet to Congress that if it does not take action, the administration will begin the formal process of implementing the next best solution.

Fintech and Mortgage Lending

image by InvestmentZen, www.investmentzen.com

The Trump Administration released its fourth and final report on Nonbank Financials, Fintech, and Innovation in its A Financial System That Creates Economic Opportunity series. The report differs from the previous three as it does not throw the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau under the bus when it comes to the regulation of mortgage lending.

The report highlights how nonbank mortgage lenders, early adopters of fintech, have taken an immense amount of market share from traditional mortgage lenders like banks:

Treasury recognizes that the primary residential mortgage market has experienced a fundamental shift in composition since the financial crisis, as traditional deposit-based lender-servicers have ceded sizable market share to nonbank financial firms, with the latter now accounting for approximately half of new originations. Some of this shift has been driven by the post-crisis regulatory environment, including enforcement actions brought under the False Claims Act for violations related to government loan insurance programs. Additionally, many nonbank lenders have benefitted from early adoption of financial technology innovations that speed up and simplify loan application and approval at the front-end of the mortgage origination process. Policymakers should address regulatory challenges that discourage broad primary market participation and inhibit the adoption of  technological developments with the potential to improve the customer experience, shorten origination timelines, facilitate efficient loss mitigation, and generally deliver a more reliable, lower cost mortgage product. (11)

I am not sure that the report has its causes and effects exactly right. For instance, why would banks be more disincentivized than other financial institutions because of False Claims Act lawsuits? Is the argument that banks have superior lending opportunities that are not open to nonbank mortgage lenders? If so, is that market segmentation such a bad thing? 

That being said, I think the report is right to highlight the impact of fintech on the contemporary mortgage lending environment. Consumers will certainly benefit from a shorter and more streamlined mortgage application process.

Housing in the Trump Era

 

The Real Estate Transactions Section of the American Association of Law Schools has issued the following Call for Papers:

Access + Opportunity + Choice: Housing Capital, Equity, and Market Regulation in the Trump Era

Program Description:

The year 2018 marks the 10th anniversary of the 2008 housing crisis—an event described as the most significant financial and economic upheaval since the Great Depression. This year is also the 50th anniversary of the Fair Housing Act, which upended many decades of overt housing discrimination. Both events remind us of the significant role that housing has played in the American story—both for good and for bad.

Of the many aspects of financial reform that followed 2008, much of the housing finance-related work was centered around mortgage loan origination and creating incentives and rules dealing with underwriting and the risk of moral hazard. Some of these reforms include the creation of the qualified mortgage safe-harbor and the skin-in-the-game risk retention rules. But when it came to the secondary mortgage market, little significant reform was undertaken. The only government action of any serious importance related to the federal government—through the Federal Housing Finance Agency (FHFA)—taking over control of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. This major government intervention into the workings of the country’s two mortgage giants yielded takings lawsuits, an outcry from shareholders, and the decimation of the capital reserves of both companies. Despite Fannie and Freddie having both paid back all the bailout funds given to them, the conservatorship remains in place to this day.

In the area of fair housing, the past several years saw the Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs v. Inclusive Communities case whereby the U.S. Supreme Court upheld (and narrowed the scope of) the disparate impact theory under the Fair Housing Act. We also saw efforts aimed at reducing geographic concentrations of affordable housing through the Obama administration’s promulgation of the affirmatively furthering fair housing rule.

Yet, meaningful housing reform remains elusive. None of the major candidates in the most recent presidential election meaningfully addressed the issue in their policy platforms, and a lack of movement in resolving the Fannie/Freddie conservatorship is viewed as a major failure of the Obama administration. Additionally, housing segregation and access to affordable mortgage credit continues to plague the American economy.

In recent months, the topics of housing finance reform and providing Americans with credit (including mortgage credit) choices have been a point of focus on Capitol Hill and in the Trump White House. Will these conservations result in meaningful legislation or changes in regulatory approaches in these areas? Will programs like the low-income-housing tax credit, the CFPB’s mandatory underwriting requirements, public housing subsidies, and the government’s role in guaranteeing and securitizing mortgage loans significantly change? Where are points of possible agreement between the country’s two major parties in this area and what kinds of compromises can be made?

Call for Papers:

The Real Estate Transactions Section looks to explore these and related issues in its 2019 AALS panel program titled: “Access and Opportunity: Housing Capital, Equity, and Market Regulation in the Trump Era.” The Section invites the submission of abstracts or full papers dealing broadly with issues related to real estate finance, the secondary mortgage market, fair housing, access to mortgage credit, mortgage lending discrimination, and the future of mortgage finance. There is no formal paper requirement associated with participation on the panel, but preference will be given to those submissions that demonstrate novel scholarly insights that have been substantially developed. Untenured scholars in particular are encouraged to submit their work. Please email your submissions to Chris Odinet at codinet@sulc.edu by Friday, August 3, 2018. The selection results will be announced in early September 2018. In additional to confirmed speakers, the Section anticipates selecting two to three papers from the call.

Confirmed Speakers:

Rigel C. Oliveri, Isabelle Wade and Paul C. Lyda Professor of Law, University of Missouri School of Law

Todd J. Zywicki, Foundation Professor of Law, George Mason University Antonin Scalia Law School

David Reiss, Professor of Law and Research Director for the Center for Urban Business Entrepreneurship, Brooklyn Law School

Eligibility:

Per AALS rules, only full-time faculty members of AALS member law schools are eligible to submit a paper/abstract to Section calls for papers. Faculty at fee-paid law schools, foreign faculty, adjunct and visiting faculty (without a full-time position at an AALS member law school), graduate students, fellows, and non-law school faculty are not eligible to submit.

All panelists, including speakers selected from this Call for Papers, are responsible for paying their own annual meeting registration fee and travel expenses.

Taking Apart The CFPB, Bit by Bit

graphic by Matt Shirk

Mick Mulvaney’s Message in the CFPB’s latest Semi-Annual Report is crystal clear regarding his plans for the Bureau:

As has been evident since the enactment of the Dodd-Frank Act, the Bureau is far too powerful, and with precious little oversight of its activities. Per the statute, in the normal course the Bureau’s Director simultaneously serves in three roles: as a one-man legislature empowered to write rules to bind parties in new ways; as an executive officer subject to limited control by the President; and as an appellate judge presiding over the Bureau’s in-house court-like adjudications. In Federalist No. 47, James Madison famously wrote that “[t]he accumulation of all powers, legislative, executive, and judiciary, in the same hands … may justly be pronounced the very definition of tyranny.” Constitutional separation of powers and related checks and balances protect us from government overreach. And while Congress may not have transgressed any constraints established by the Supreme Court, the structure and powers of this agency are not something the Founders and Framers would recognize. By structuring the Bureau the way it has, Congress established an agency primed to ignore due process and abandon the rule of law in favor of bureaucratic fiat and administrative absolutism.

The best that any Bureau Director can do on his own is to fulfill his responsibilities with humility and prudence, and to temper his decisions with the knowledge that the power he wields could all too easily be used to harm consumers, destroy businesses, or arbitrarily remake American financial markets. But all human beings are imperfect, and history shows that the temptation of power is strong. Our laws should be written to restrain that human weakness, not empower it.

I have no doubt that many Members of Congress disagree with my actions as the Acting Director of the Bureau, just as many Members disagreed with the actions of my predecessor. Such continued frustration with the Bureau’s lack of accountability to any representative branch of government should be a warning sign that a lapse in democratic structure and republican principles has occurred. This cycle will repeat ad infinitum unless Congress acts to make it accountable to the American people.

Accordingly, I request that Congress make four changes to the law to establish meaningful accountability for the Bureau :

1. Fund the Bureau through Congressional appropriations;

2. Require legislative approval of major Bureau rules;

3. Ensure that the Director answers to the President in the exercise of executive authority; and

4. Create an independent Inspector General for the Bureau. (2-3)

Mulvaney gets points for speaking clearly, but a lot of what he says is wrong and at odds with how the federal government has operated for nearly one hundred years. He is wrong in stating that the CFPB Director acts without judicial oversight. The Director’s decisions are appealable and his predecessor’s have, in fact, been overturned. And his call to a return to the federal government of the type recognizable to the Framers has a hollow ring since at least 1935 when the Supreme Court decided Humphrey’s Executor v. United States.

I would think that it should go without saying that the federal government has grown exponentially since its founding in the 18th century. The Supreme Court has acknowledged as much in Humphrey’s Executor which held that Congress could create independent agencies.  Independent agencies are now fundamental to the operation of the federal government.

Mulvaney and others are seeking to chip away at the legitimacy of the modern administrative state. That is certainly their prerogative. But they should not ignore the history of the last hundred years and skip all the way back to 18th century if they want their arguments to sound like anything more than a bit of sophistry.

The Missing Piece in The Affordable Housing Puzzle

The National Low Income Housing Coalition has posted The Gap: A Shortage of Affordable Homes. The report opens,

One of the biggest barriers to economic stability for families in the United States struggling to make ends meet is the severe shortage of affordable rental homes. The housing crisis is most severe for extremely low income renters, whose household incomes are at or below the poverty level or 30% of their area median income (see Box 1). Facing a shortage of more than 7.2 million affordable and available rental homes, extremely low income households account for nearly 73% of the nation’s severely cost-burdened renters, who spend more than half of their income on housing.

Even with these housing challenges, three out of four low income households in need of housing assistance are denied federal help with their housing due to chronic underfunding. Over half a million people were homeless on a single night in 2017 and many more millions of families without assistance face difficult choices between spending their limited incomes on rent or taking care of other necessities like food and medical care. Despite the serious lack of affordable housing, President Trump proposes further reducing federal housing assistance for the lowest income households through budget cuts, increased rents and work requirements.

Based on the American Community Survey (ACS), this report presents data on the affordable housing supply, housing cost burdens, and the demographics of severely impacted renters. The data clearly illustrate a chronic and severe shortage of affordable homes for the lowest income renters who would be harmed even more by budget cuts  and other restrictions in federal housing programs. (2, citations omitted)

The report’s key findings include,

  • The nation’s 11.2 million extremely low income renter households account for 25.7% of all renter households and 9.5% of all households in the United States.
  • The U.S. has a shortage of more than 7.2 million rental homes affordable and available to extremely low income renter households. Only 35 affordable and available rental homes exist for every 100 extremely low income renter households.
  • Seventy-one percent of extremely low income renter households are severely cost-burdened, spending more than half of their incomes on rent and utilities. They account for 72.7% of all severely cost-burdened renter households in the United States.
  • Thirty-two percent of very low income, 8% of low income, and 2.3% of middle income renter households are severely cost-burdened.
  • Of the eight million severely cost-burdened extremely low income renter households, 84% are seniors, persons with disabilities, or are in the labor force. Many others are enrolled in school or are single adults caring for a young child or a person with a disability. (2, citations omitted)

While the report does show how wrongheaded the Trump Administration’s proposed cuts to housing subsidies are, I was surprised that it did not address at all the impact of local zoning policies on housing affordability. There is no way that we are going to address the chronic shortage in affordable housing by subsidies alone.

The federal government will need to disincentivize local governments from implementing land use policies that keep affordable housing from being built in communities that have too little housing. These rules make single family homes too expensive by requiring large lots and make it too difficult to build multifamily housing. We cannot seriously tackle the affordability problem without addressing restrictive local land use policies.

The Regulation of Residential Real Estate Finance Under Trump

I published a short article in the American College of Real Estate Lawyers (ACREL)  (ACREL) News & Notes, The Regulation of Residential Real Estate Finance Under Trump. The abstract reads,

Reducing Regulation and Controlling Regulatory Costs was one of President Trump’s first Executive Orders. He signed it on January 30, 2017, just days after his inauguration. It states that it “is the policy of the executive branch to be prudent and financially responsible in the expenditure of funds, from both public and private sources. . . . [I]t is essential to manage the costs associated with the governmental imposition of private expenditures required to comply with Federal regulations.” The Reducing Regulation Executive Order outlined a broad deregulatory agenda, but was short on details other than the requirement that every new regulation be accompanied by the elimination of two existing ones.

A few days later, Trump issued another Executive Order that was focused on financial services regulation in particular, Core Principles for Regulating the United States Financial System. Pursuant to this second Executive Order, the Trump Administration’s first core principle for financial services regulation is to “empower Americans to make independent financial decisions and informed choices in the marketplace, save for retirement, and build individual wealth.” The Core Principles Executive Order was also short on details.

Since Trump signed these two broad Executive Orders, the Trump Administration has been issuing a series of reports that fill in many of the details for financial institutions. The Department of Treasury has issued three of four reports that are collectively titled A Financial System That Creates Economic Opportunities that are directly responsive to the Core Principles Executive Order. While these documents cover a broad of topics, they offer a glimpse into how the Administration intends to regulate or more properly, deregulate, residential real estate finance in particular.

This is a shorter version of The Trump Administration And Residential Real Estate Finance, published earlier this year in the Westlaw Journal: Derivatives.