Sunday, December 21, 2014

Few seen aided by BofA settlement

Attorney General Eric Holder makes a major financial fraud announcement during a press conference August 21, 2014 at the Justice Department in Washington, DC. The Justice Department has reached a $16.65 billion settlement with Bank of America Corporation for financial fraud leading up to and during the financial crisis, the largest civil settlement with a single entity in American history, to resolve federal and state claims against Bank of America and its former and current subsidiaries, including Countrywide Financial Corporation and Merrill Lynch.  (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)
Attorney General Eric Holder makes a major financial fraud announcement during a press conference August 21, 2014 at the Justice Department in Washington, DC. The Justice Department has reached a $16.65 billion settlement with Bank of America Corporation for financial fraud leading up to and during the financial crisis, the largest civil settlement with a single entity in American history, to resolve federal and state claims against Bank of America and its former and current subsidiaries, including Countrywide Financial Corporation and Merrill Lynch. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

WASHINGTON - Bank of America's record $16.65 billion settlement for its role in selling shoddy mortgage bonds - $7 billion of it geared for consumer relief - offers a glint of hope for desperate homeowners.

The settlement requires the second-largest U.S. bank to reduce some homeowners' loan balances, provide new loans to low-income buyers, and address areas of neighborhood blight.

But consumer advocates say relatively few people will be helped relative to the devastation triggered by the mortgage bonds, which fueled the worst financial crisis since the 1930s and threw millions of homes into foreclosure.

Only a fraction of homeowners would be eligible for refinancing under the settlement. And the process by which people would qualify and receive aid could drag on for years, with payouts set to be completed as late as 2018.

Those who have already lost homes to a foreclosure or a short sale - when a lender accepts less money from a sale than what the borrower owes - were not likely to benefit at all.

"It is certainly better than nothing," said Bruce Marks, chief executive of the nonprofit Neighborhood Assistance Corp. of America. "But for the millions who lost their homes, it reinforces the appearance that the government has not been on their side."

The Bank of America settlement will include the appointment of an independent monitor to review the consumer relief. This could take weeks and mean that "thousands of people who right now are in default or foreclosure" will miss the chance to reduce their mortgage balances, said Shanna Smith, president of the National Fair Housing Alliance.

Smith's organization has investigated the fallout from the foreclosures. It has filed a complaint with the Department of Housing and Urban Development that banks failed to maintain properties after borrowers defaulted. The alliance said it found that Bank of America enabled foreclosed homes in minority communities in Orlando, Denver, Memphis, Atlanta, and elsewhere to slide into disrepair.

As part of the consumer relief, Bank of America has essentially pledged to help remedy the neighborhood blight its neglect helped cause when it auctioned off foreclosed homes at steep discounts, Smith said.

"Bank of America created the problem," she said.

The agreement with Bank of America caps a trio of deals over the past nine months. Each has been designed to punish some of the country's leading financial institutions for their roles in bundling subprime mortgages into securities that were misleadingly sold as safe investments despite the high likelihood that borrowers would default.

JPMorgan Chase & Co. agreed to a $13 billion settlement while Citigroup reached a separate $7 billion deal.

Josh Boak, Pete Yost, and Marcy Gordon Associated Press
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