New tips for voting while in foreclosure

A new report highlights the confusion that people who’ve lost homes to foreclosure feel when determining how they can cast a ballot this November, and lays out ways to protect their voting rights.

The Fair Elections Legal Network’s report, “Lose Your Home, Keep Your Vote: How to Protect Voters Caught Up in Foreclosure,” is accompanied by guides tailored to 15 states – including California – on how and where people can vote depending on where they are in the foreclosure process.

“Voting is the foundation of our democracy. People dealing with the foreclosure process or whose homes have been foreclosed upon have enough to deal with without worrying about their vote counting,” network president Robert Brandon said in a news release. “With foreclosures on the rise again, the question shouldn’t be if a voter facing foreclosure can vote but where that voter can cast their ballot, and that question should be clearly answered by election officials.”

Brandon said election officials “have a duty to make sure voters have the information they need to cast a ballot and have it counted. They should be extra vigilant as Election Day nears to issue directives and educate the public and local election officials on how voters who lost their home can maintain their right to vote.”

California had the highest number of new foreclosure filings last year and, according to RealtyTrac, during the month of June 2012, California had the highest foreclosure rate nationwide this past June.

California has been hit hard by foreclosures in recent years; some areas, including the now-bankrupt city of Stockton, have been devastated. California in August was among the states with the greatest decreases (42 percent) in foreclosure starts compared to one year earlier, according to RealtyTrac, yet still posted the nation’s third highest state foreclosure rate: One in every 340 California housing units had a foreclosure filing in August, which is twice the national average.

And seven of the 10 U.S. metro areas with the most foreclosure activity in August are in California: Modesto, Merced, Bakersfield, Fresno, Stockton, Riverside-San Bernardino-Ontario, and Chico.

Like all movers, those who facing foreclosure also face hurdles to voting such as needing to update their address and/or re-register to vote in a new jurisdiction. What a particular person must do might depend on where he or she is in the foreclosure process; for example, someone who has lost a home might still have a legal “right of redemption,” a period of time in which they could repurchase their home and during which time they can still vote from that address.

In California and 17 other states, a person can keep voting at the address of their foreclosed home until they establish a new residence in which they intend to remain. In other states, the correct polling place for a foreclosure victim is often more confusing.


Lawmakers urge Obama to act on housing

Much as the state’s U.S. Senators did yesterday, members of the California Democratic Congressional Delegation today urged President Obama to act immediately to address the troubled housing market.

The letter, drafted by delegation chairwoman Rep. Zoe Lofgren, D-San Jose, calls on President Obama to urge the Federal Housing Finance Agency to establish a plan to refinance all mortgages owned or guaranteed by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, and to push for a major principal reduction plan for underwater homeowners, such as modifications in coordination with Chapter 13 bankruptcy filings.

It also asks the president to institute a “Homeowner’s Bill Of Rights” that would apply to HAMP, FHFA, HUD, VA and private servicer modification programs. The lawmakers want this to make the process homeowner-friendly by ensuring a single point of contact; requiring servicers to review documents within a timely fashion and disclose information; and banning “advanced fees.” They also want it to eliminate obstacles to effective modifications by allowing for flexibility in the debt-to-income ratio; ending the requirement that homeowners be delinquent in order to be eligible for a loan modification; ending dual tracking; and requiring that servicers not report adverse credit information while trial or permanent modification is underway.

Finally, they want this bill of rights to ensure accountability and establish an appeals process by creating an Office of Consumer Advocate, authorizing random audits of modifications, and establishing an independent appeals process for homeowners who believe their modification has been improperly rejected or handled in violation of program rules.

Among those joining Lofgren at a Capitol Hill news conference announcing the letter this morning were Rep. Barbara Lee, D-Oakland; Rep. Pete Stark, D-Fremont; Rep. Jerry McNerney, D-Pleasanton; Rep. John Garamendi, D-Walnut Grove; Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Hillsborough; and Rep. Anna Eshoo, D-Palo Alto.

They all signed the letter, as did Rep. George Miller, D-Martinez; Rep. Mike Honda, D-San Jose; Rep. Lynn Woolsey, D-Petaluma; and other House Democrats from across the state.

Read the letter, after the jump…
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AG Harris launches mortgage fraud strike force

California Attorney General Kamala Harris today announced she’s creating a Mortgage Fraud Strike Force staffed by state Department of Justice attorneys and investigators charged with the duty of “protecting innocent homeowners and bringing to justice those who defraud them,” according to her news release.

Kamala Harris“Californians in search of the American dream all too often found a protracted personal and legal nightmare. Families are losing their homes, while those who perpetrated crimes and frauds against them walk free,” Harris said. “We will work to safeguard the homeowner at every step of the process – from origination of a loan to its securitization, and we will prosecute to the fullest extent of the law those who take advantage of trusting California families. We are setting a high bar for other states and we insist that homeowners be protected, respected, and informed.”

Harris rolled out the new initiative in Los Angeles this afternoon, accompanied by LA Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and representatives from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and the Center for Responsible Lending.

Harris’ news release says the strike force will work out of state Justice Department offices in San Francisco, Fresno, Los Angeles and Sacramento, with 25 attorneys and investigators broken into three teams. A consumer enforcement team will target scams in the consumer arena, including predatory lending, unfair business practices in originating loans, deceptive marketing, and loan modification and foreclosure consultant scams. A criminal enforcement team will prosecute criminal frauds associated with the epidemic of mortgage scams, including fraudulent investment and money laundering schemes related to mortgage lending or foreclosure relief. And corporate fraud team will target misconduct involving investments and securities tied to subprime mortgages, as well as false or fraudulent claims made to the state with respect to these securities.

There were foreclosure filings against 546,669 California homes in 2010; an estimated 2 million California homes will enter the foreclosure process from 2009 through 2012. The state Justice Department reports it has received thousands of complaints related to foreclosure scams, mortgage fraud, and mortgage servicing practices in the past year.

“The fingerprints of illegal activity are all over the foreclosure crisis,” said Paul Leonard, director of the Center for Responsible Lending’s California office. “The Attorney General’s effort marries the need to punish bad actors for the practices that brought our economy to the brink with the need to eliminate the scam artists who have since attempted to profit from it. Given the economic damage wreaked by foreclosures in California, this initiative is very welcome news.”

Homeowners who believe they’ve been scammed can file complaints through the Attorney General’s website.


Foreclosure forum set for Saturday in Oakland

At least three state lawmakers are expected to attend a “foreclosure and economic crisis solutions forum” Saturday at which foreclosure victims, clergy, public employees and others will call for new initiatives to aid struggling communities.

Assemblyman Sandre Swanson, D-Alameda; Assemblywoman Nancy Skinner, D-Berkeley; and state Sen. Mark Leno, D-San Francisco, are scheduled to attend the public forum, from 10:30 a.m. to noon Saturday in St. Louis Bertrand Church, 1410 100th Ave. in Oakland. The event is being organized by the Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment, Oakland Community Organizations, PICO California, and SEIU Local 1021.

The forum will feature testimonies from foreclosure victims and local officials who are still feeling the crisis’ impact, and will offer policy solutions.

“Banks must be held accountable,” Lilian Cabrera, currently in foreclosure proceedings, said in a news release. “I’m a small business owner in Oakland, and if I don’t hold up my end of a contract, I’ll lose my license. Well, the banks certainly haven’t held up their end of the deal and they’re getting away with it.”


Catching up with Barbara Lee and Pete Stark

Having argued the budget all last week, Bay Area House members were pounding the local pavement today, and I got to spend some time chatting with Rep. Barbara Lee and Rep. Pete Stark.

Barbara Lee (Dec-2010)Lee, D-Oakland, started her day by visiting with parents and teachers at the Early Head Start program at Oakland’s First Presbyterian Church, 2619 Broadway. That site serves 20 low-income toddlers and infants; it’s part of the city’s Head Start program, run in collaboration with the Unity Council and serving 1,374 three- to five-year-olds and 200 infants and toddlers.

The continuing resolution for the remainder this fiscal year passed by the Republican-run House late Friday would trim more than $1 billion from Head Start nationwide, reducing benefits to more than 200,000 children including about 27,000 in California.

From there, Lee came to the Oakland Tribune’s offices to meet with our editorial board; I sat in.

“For Head Start to be on the chopping block, to me, is mind-boggling,” she said, noting that with 100 families on the waiting list in Oakland, the program should be getting more funding, not less.

She also talked about how Democrats’ efforts to extend unemployment insurance benefits for “99ers” – long-term unemployed workers who’ve already exceeded the 99 weeks of benefits to which they’re now entitled – was excluded from this continuing resolution, just as it was excluded from the tax deal signed into law in December. Her own bill to extend the benefits, however, is far from dead, she vowed; she said she has 67 co-sponsors and will do whatever she can to bring it to a vote. “This has got to happen.”

Why fight so hard for these things when Democrats are in the House’s minority? “Why am I there? What’s the alternative?” she responded. “I can’t say I’m even cautiously optimistic, but it’s moving.”

She also renewed her defense of earmark spending, noting that in her 9th Congressional District, targeted budget lines have helped fund the Chabot Space & Science Center, the Cypress Mandela Training Center, Youth Radio, the Alameda County Office of AIDS Administration, the Oakland Unified School District, the Alameda County Library’s Castro Valley branch, La Clinica de la Raza, Asian Health Services, and sidewalks in the Ashland and Cherryland unincorporated areas.

“Earmarks are a good thing, and I am so sick of hearing bad things about earmarks,” she said, noting that President Obama’s State of the Union pledge to veto any bill containing earmarks led her to sign onto a “cordial” letter to the White House urging his reconsideration. “I’m going to fight this one to the end. I don’t know how and when we’re going to be able to restore this.”

Lee said she intends to keep pushing for defense budget cuts, at least to match those being made to domestic programs. She said she’s adamant about protecting Social Security against Republicans’ plan to partially privatize it. And she said she wants to do more to help homeowners facing foreclosure. All of this as she tries to balance Democrats’ efforts to get the President re-elected next year with the continuing pressure that she and other progressives want to exert upon him on issues from Afghanistan to earmarks.

Pete StarkStark, D-Fremont, started his day by visiting a government class at Fremont’s Mission San Jose High School, then meeting at his district office with a construction-workers union that’s concerned about who’ll be moving the assembly line equipment in the former New United Motor Manufacturing Inc. (NUMMI) plant as electric carmaker Tesla Motors moves in.

Then he met with me for about an hour at San Leandro’s Paradiso restaurant. Accompanied only by his 15-year-old son, Fortney Hillman “Fish” Stark III, he sipped a diet soda while discussing his desire to cut defense spending while protecting some of the domestic programs on which some of his most vulnerable constituents rely.

We talked about how his 13th Congressional District is somewhat socially bifurcated, with a somewhat older, somewhat whiter constituency in its northern areas and a somewhat younger, somewhat more multiethnic constituency to the south. We revisited that theme again toward the end of our chat, as he said he’s waiting with great interest to see how the Citizens Redistricting Commission will redraw House district lines later this year. But he said there’s no truth to the rumor that at 79 – and as the House’s fifth-most-senior member and the dean of California’s delegation – he’s not planning on running next year.

Given Lee’s comments, I asked Stark about rebuilding support for President Obama’s 2012 re-election campaign. “There’s been an amazing amount of progressive legislation that’s come out,” he said, from health care reform to the repeal of the military’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy on gay and lesbian servicemembers. The President will have to remain labor-friendly in order to put a lot of campaign boots on the ground in Alameda County next year, he said, but that shouldn’t be a problem.

On the situation in Wisconsin, where Republican Gov. Scott Walker is trying to break the public employee union, Stark noted his native state is politically odd in that it’s split between a conservative farm belt in the west and labor-centric cities like Milwaukee and Racine in the east. National labor unions seem to see it as “a make or break contest,” he said. “I wish we weren’t trying to decide the outcome of public employee bargaining for the whole country based on what they do there, but that may be the case.”

We touched on other topics from the falling dominoes of regime change in North Africa and the Middle East to the ongoing threat of terrorism and how it’s balanced against preservation of our civil liberties. And, looking past the current budget battle, he predicted the rest of 2011 will be about Republicans trying to roll back last year’s health-care reforms and Democrats trying to preserve them.

Stark will meet with constituents in a town-hall meeting from 6 to 7:30 p.m. this Thursday, Feb. 24 at the Fremont Senior Center, 40086 Paseo Padre Parkway.


Lawmakers urge banks to allow aid for jobless

Five Northern California members of Congress are pressuring mortgage servicers to work with a new federally funded program in California intended to help unemployed homeowners pay their mortgages and avoid foreclosure.

The Keep Your Home California Unemployment Mortgage Assistance Program provides qualified unemployed homeowners up to $3,000 a month for up to six months to help pay their mortgage. But according to the office of Rep. George Miller, D-Martinez, if the monthly mortgage exceeds $3,000, the servicers won’t accept any payment at all, even if the homeowner could send a second check to cover the difference between what is owed and what the program covers. As a result, unemployed homeowners who could avoid foreclosure proceedings thanks to this program are instead at risk of failing to pay their mortgage and landing in foreclosure.

“If this program is to have meaningful success, mortgage servicers are going to have to get on board with processing these payments,” Miller said in a news release. “Refusing to accept dual payments is unacceptable and is a disservice to the homeowners who are doing everything they can to stay in their homes while they look for work. Homeowners shouldn’t have to forfeit their homes because of bureaucratic intransigence by banks and servicers.”

Rep. Zoe Lofgren, D-San Jose, another of the letter’s signers, said “it’s time that banks and servicers become part of the solution and not the problem.

“It’s ridiculous that servicers and banks are unwilling to participate in a program that will help protect the value of the very asset on which their loan is based on,” she said. “I find it deeply troubling that servicers would have borrowers default rather than simply accepting payment.”

In their letter – also signed by Rep. John Garamendi, D-Walnut Grove; Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Hillsborough; and Rep. Sam Farr, D-Santa Cruz – they wrote that, “we believe refusing to accept supplementary payments from homeowners is inexcusable and we strongly urge you to remedy this problem expeditiously… It is unacceptable that servicers in California are unwilling or unable to figure out a workable resolution to this problem, particularly given that two viable options to address the issue exist.”

Those options, they say, are either to accept two checks (one from the program and one from the homeowner) or to forebear the amount of the mortgage that exceeds the $3,000 program payment.