By Ben Hallman,
The surprising decision by regulators to scrap a massive and expensive foreclosure review program in favor of a $10 billion settlement with 14 banks -- reported by The New York Times Sunday night -- came after a year of mounting concerns about the independence and effectiveness of the controversial program.
The program, known as the Independent Foreclosure Review, was supposed to give homeowners who believe that their bank made a mistake in handling their foreclosure an opportunity for a neutral third party to review the claim. It's not clear what factors led banking regulators to abandon the program in favor of a settlement, but the final straw may have been a pending report by the Government Accountability Office, a nonpartisan investigative arm of Congress, which was investigating the review program.
Rep. Brad Miller, a North Carolina Democrat, told The Huffington Post that the report, which has not been released, was "critical" and that the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency, which administers the review, was aware of its findings. Miller said that that one problem the GAO was likely to highlight was an "unacceptably high" error rate of 11 percent in a sampling of bank loan files.
The sample files were chosen at random by the banks from their broader pool of foreclosed homeowners, who had not necessarily applied for relief. The data suggests that of the 4 million families who lost their homes to foreclosure since the housing crash, more than 400,000 had some bank-caused problem in their loan file. It also suggests that many thousands of those who could have applied for relief didn't -- because they weren't aware of the review, or weren't aware that their bank had made a mistake. Some of these mistakes pushed homeowners into foreclosure who otherwise could have afforded to keep their homes.
Miller said the news that a settlement to replace the review was in the works caught him by surprise, and stressed that he had no way of knowing whether the impending GAO report had triggered the decision.
It's not clear what will happen to the 250,000 homeowners who have already applied to the Independent Foreclosure Review for relief. The Times, citing people familiar with the negotiations, said that a deal between the banks and banking regulators, led by the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency, could be reached by the end of the week. It wasn't clear how that money would be distributed or how many current and former homeowners who lost their homes to foreclosure -- or who were hit with an unnecessary fee -- might qualify.
Bryan Hubbard, a spokesman for the OCC, which administers the program, declined to comment on the Times' story. Hubbard told HuffPost, "The Office of the Comptroller of the Currency is committed to ensuring the Independent Foreclosure Review proceeds efficiently and to ensuring harmed borrowers are compensated as quickly as possible."
Since the housing market crashed in 2007, thousands of foreclosed homeowners have complained that their mortgage company made a mistake in the management of their home loan, such as foreclosing on someone making payments on a loan modification plan. The Independent Foreclosure Review emerged from a legal agreement in April 2011 between 14 mortgage companies and bank regulators over these abusive "servicing" practices. It was supposed to give homeowners an opportunity to have an unbiased third party review their foreclosure and determine whether they might qualify for a cash payout of up to $125,000.
The initial response was tepid, at best. Homeowners and advocates complained that the application forms were confusing and that information about what type of compensation they might get was missing. Some told HuffPost that they were so disillusioned by the federal government's anemic response to widely reported bank errors that they weren't going to bother to apply.
In one instance, Daniel Casper, an Illinois wedding videographer, applied to the program in January after years of combat with Bank of America over his home loan. As The Huffington Post reported in October, he was initially rejected, because, according to the bank, his mortgage was not in the foreclosure process during the eligible review period. Promontory Financial Group, which Bank of America hired to review his loan, apparently did not double check Bank of America's analysis against the extensive documentation that Chase submitted. That documentation clearly showed that his loan was eligible for review.
In recent months ProPublica, an investigative nonprofit, has issued a series of damning articles about the Independent Foreclosure Review. The most recent found that supposedly independent third-party reviewers looking over Bank of America loan files were given the "correct" answers in advance by the bank. These reviewers could override the answers, but they weren't starting from a blank slate.
Banks, if they did not find a "compensable error," did not have to pay anything, giving them a strong incentive to find no flaws with their own work.
"It was flawed from the start," Miller said of the review program. "There was an inherent conflict of interest by just about everyone involved."