After months of painstaking talks, government authorities and five of the nation’s biggest banks have agreed to a $26 billion settlement that could provide relief to nearly two million current and former American homeowners harmed by the bursting of the housing bubble, state and federal officials said. It is part of a broad national settlement aimed at halting the housing market’s downward slide and holding the banks accountable for foreclosure abuses.
Despite the billions earmarked in the accord, the aid will help a relatively small portion of the millions of borrowers who are delinquent and facing foreclosure. The success could depend in part on how effectively the program is carried out because earlier efforts by Washington aimed at troubled borrowers helped far fewer than had been expected.
Still, the agreement is the broadest effort yet to help borrowers owing more than their houses are worth, with roughly one million expected to have their mortgage debt reduced by lenders or able to refinance their homes at lower rates. Another 750,000 people who lost their homes to foreclosure from September 2008 to the end of 2011 will receive checks for about $2,000. The aid is to be distributed over three years.
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An announcement was scheduled in Washington for Thursday morning. The final details of the pact, including how many states would participate, were expected to be announced then. The two biggest holdouts, California and New York, now plan to sign on, according to the officials with knowledge of the matter who did not want to be identified because the negotiations were not completed.
The deal grew out of an investigation into mortgage servicing by all 50 state attorneys general that was introduced in the fall of 2010 amid an uproar over revelations that banks evicted people with false or incomplete documentation. In the 14 months since then, the scope of the accord has broadened from an examination of foreclosure abuses to a broad effort to lift the housing market out of its biggest slump since the Great Depression. Four million Americans have been foreclosed upon since the beginning of 2007, and the huge overhang of abandoned homes has swamped many regions, like California, Florida and Arizona.
In New York State, more than 46,000 borrowers will receive some form of benefit, with an estimated 21,000 expected to see what they owe reduced through a principal reduction, according to estimates by the Department of Housing and Urban Development.
The five mortgage servicers in the settlement — Bank of America, JPMorgan Chase, Wells Fargo, Citigroup and Ally Financial — have largely set aside reserves for the expected cost of the accord and investors are likely to cheer its announcement because it removes one more legal worry for the industry, analysts said.
“I wouldn’t say it’s a panacea for the housing industry but it is good for the banks to get this behind them,” said Jason Goldberg, an analyst with Barclays.
As more and more states signed on this week, the negotiations with the banks became especially intense, said one participant, who wasn’t authorized to speak publicly. Two bank officials, Frank Bisignano of JPMorgan Chase and Mike Heid of Wells Fargo, played a critical role in the talks with Shaun Donovan, the secretary of Housing and Urban Development, and Thomas J. Perrelli, the associate attorney general at the Justice Department. Bank of America, which will make the largest payout as the nation’s biggest mortgage servicer, moved more cautiously, the participant said.
The settlement money will be doled out under a complicated formula that gives banks varying degrees of credit for different kinds of help. As a result, banks are incentivized to help harder-hit borrowers with homes worth far less than what they owe.
While the $26 billion figure is the one being cited in the negotiations, federal officials said they hope the eventual value for homeowners reaches up to $39 billion. However, mortgages owned by the government’s housing finance agencies, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, will not be covered under the deal, excluding about half the nation’s mortgages.
About one in five Americans with mortgages are underwater, which means they owe more than their home is worth. Collectively, their negative equity is almost $700 billion. On average, these homeowners are underwater by $50,000 each.
A recent estimate from the settlement negotiations put the average aid for homeowners at $20,000.
“I just don’t think it’s going to be a life-changing event for borrowers,” said Gus Altuzarra, whose company, the Vertical Capital Markets Group, buys loans from banks at a discount.
Several billion dollars would cover the direct cash payments to foreclosure victims and provide money for states’ attorneys general to services like mortgage counseling and future investigations into mortgage fraud.
Though many economists identify the moribund housing market as the greatest drag on the recovery, it is not clear how much the settlement will help.
Christopher J. Mayer, a housing expert at Columbia Business School, said the accord could give banks more certainty that they can clear their large backloads of seized homes, restoring the flow of those homes into the market.
“It may be good for individual homeowners, but if you don’t do something to help the foreclosure process, it’s not going to help the housing market,” he said.
Mark Zandi, the chief economist for Moodys Analytics, said that while the settlement looked small compared with the scope of the problem, it was not necessary to erase all, or even most, of the nation’s negative equity to turn the market around.
About a third of houses on the market now are distressed, or have been through foreclosure, he said, and reducing that percentage by just a small amount could be enough to put a floor under housing prices.
More than the dollar figures, the settlement had been held up amid concern by New York’s attorney general, Eric T. Schneiderman, that it provided too broad of a release for banks for past misdeeds, making future investigations much more difficult.
Mr. Schneiderman was able to win significant concessions from the banks in recent days.
In the agreement’s expected final form, the releases are mostly limited to the foreclosure process, like the eviction of homeowners after only a cursory examination of documents, a practice known as robo-signing.
The prosecutors and regulators still have the right to investigate other elements that contributed to the housing bubble, like the assembly of risky mortgages into securities that were sold to investors and later soured, as well as insurance and tax fraud.
Officials will also be able to pursue any allegations of criminal wrongdoing. In addition, a lawsuit Mr. Schneiderman filed Friday against MERS, an electronic mortgage registry responsible for much of the robo-signing that has marred the foreclosure process nationwide, and three banks, Bank of America, JPMorgan Chase and Wells Fargo, will also go forward.
Along with how broad the releases would be, California’s attorney general, Kamala Harris, also pushed for her state to be able to use the state’s False Claims Act. That would enable state officials and huge pension funds like Calpers to collect sizable monetary damages from the banks if officials could prove mortgages were improperly packaged into securities that later dropped in value.