Foreclosure freeze movement hits top of Democratic ticket

Legal News Line Oct. 13, 2008, 2:30pm

Barack Obama (D)

Mike Aguirre

TOLEDO, Ohio (Legal Newsline)-A grassroots effort that began near the U.S.-Mexican border reached the heartland of America on Monday when Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama advocated a 90-day moratorium on some home foreclosures during a rally on Monday in this blue-collar swing state.

In a series of proposals designed to stabilize the country's faltering economy and bring relief to working-class families, Obama said part of the solution includes providing temporary relief from foreclosure.

"I'm proposing a number of steps that we should take immediately to stabilize our financial system, provide relief to families and communities and help struggling homeowners," the junior senator from Illinois said.

Obama did not offer specifics about the foreclosure freeze, but did say that banks who are benefiting from the historic $700 billion bailout approved this month by Congress should temporarily agree to the moratorium for families making good-faith efforts to pay their mortgage.

The endorsement for some form of foreclosure moratorium gives further credence to a movement that has roots in California, where advocacy groups like Greenlining Institute and San Diego's Mahubay Alliance have lobbied state, local and federal lawmakers to provide immediate assistance to families and communities being wiped out by rampant foreclosures.

Robert Gnaizda, general counsel for Greenlining, hailed Obama's announcement as the next step of significant action that could see as many as 75 to 90 percent of all homeowners facing foreclosure in the coming months saving their homes.

"It's very clear now that a large number of foreclosures in the next three to six months," Gnaizda told Legal Newsline, "can be avoided."

San Diego City Attorney Mike Aguirre, who unsuccessfully lobbied San Diego's City Council to declare advocate a foreclosure freeze, said he was pleased and validated by news of Obama's support.

"Camus said, 'All great deeds and all great thoughts have a ridiculous beginning.'" Aguirre told Legal Newsline. "That's what they said when we first made this suggestion. But now it has become clear that this is really the only way to truly solve this financial crisis, because it undoes the wrongdoing."

Aguirre said a temporary moratorium on foreclosures must be followed by the "tedious work" of revising hundreds of thousands of loans back to their fair market value.

"The only solution," he said, "is to come back and on a mass basis, rework the loans with the real numbers. The only way to do that is to give the time with this moratorium to effectively accomplish that."

Gnaizda said he believes significant change has begun and can be finished when Obama wins the presidential election and names a new U.S. secretary of the treasury.

"Greenlining urged a five-month moratorium so the new administration had until the end of February to effectively solve this foreclosure crisis," Gnaizda said. "But in light of the transition speed-up proposed by the Bush administration, the new administration can effectively play a major role in the next three months."

San Diego's Mahubay Alliance first called for a foreclosure freeze during one of the first public demonstrations about the impact of foreclosures on the economy and community last year.

Gnaizda wrote letters to California Attorney General Jerry Brown and Bank of America Chairman Ken Lewis at the height of negotiations over lawsuits filed against Countrywide Financial Corp.'s predatory lending practices.

Bank of America purchased Countrywide, the nation's largest mortgage lender, in July. Brown and other attorneys general announced an $8.68 billion settlement with Bank of America last week that included a partial temporary foreclosure moratorium.

The first large foreclosure moratorium began after the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. seized control over IndyMac and instituted a freeze while it reworked loans.

Representatives from the FDIC, Greenlining, Mahubay and state representatives joined Aguirre when he made his appeal to the San Diego City Council.

The effort reached the national level later in September when four Democratic U.S. senators urged the chairman on Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae to adopt a freeze and follow the model of the FDIC's work with Indy Mac.

Last Monday, 11 attorneys general include Brown and Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan who negotiated the Bank of America settlement, called on 16 other lending institutions to follow suit and adopt some type of temporary freeze to rework bad loans.

On Friday, Aguirre sued Washington Mutual alleging the bank engaged in "a pattern of unlawful, unfair or fraudulent predatory real estate lending practices" causing residents to fall into default of their loans.

His lawsuit, he said, puts further legal pressure on more banks to join the movement of reworking loans rather than ruining communities through rampant foreclosures.

"Were trying to create a vehicle that will allow them to do that," Aguirre said.

Gnaizda said an Obama administration, new government policies that could include regulation of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, and the recent mergers of lending institutions could see combine to help a vast majority of homeowners facing foreclosure.

"It is possible 75-90 percent of all potential foreclosures in the next three to six months could be averted by this appropriate action," Gnaizda said.

Each effort, from the Countrywide settlement to the IndyMac Model to that proposed by Obama offer different details on which borrowers, working with which banks, will be given relief.

But with each announcement, an idea once given little more than lip service, has moved center stage in the country's economic crisis.

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