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Big banks meet obligations of 'robo-signing' settlement, but homeowner relief falls short

Big banks are declaring victory over their obligations under the National Mortgage Settlement, but new reports show the multibillion-dollar "robo-signing" agreement has in many ways underwhelmed.

Five banks accused of mortgage sins that helped worsen the housing crisis have officially offered more than $20 billion in credited relief, satisfying the terms of their 2012 settlement, an independent monitor announced Tuesday.

But while the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development said in 2012 that a million homeowners would see reduced mortgage principals or refinanced loans, data show only 630,000 homeowners across the country have seen any sort of relief.

In Florida, about 120,000 homeowners were offered $9.2 billion in relief, the nation's second-highest level of assistance behind California. But much of that money went toward short sales or second-mortgage forgiveness, relief that didn't help distressed borrowers stay in their homes, reports show.

Nearly $3.5 billion, or about 38 percent of the Florida outlay, went toward clearing away second-loan debt that foreclosure-defense attorneys argue the lenders likely would have never collected.

Banks earned another $3.5 billion in credit though short sales, by approving sales of distressed homes for less than the homeowners owed. Housing counselors often call short sales a last resort: They scar homeowners' credit, force distressed owners to move and can carry large tax burdens.

Investors largely benefited from big banks' focus on short sales as relief. About 64 percent of the 4,800 Tampa Bay short sales over the last year went to all-cash buyers, the largest chunk of whom scoop up homes as investments, multiple listing service data show.

But only about 11,000 of the 120,000 Florida homeowners offered settlement aid were allowed principal forgiveness, the favored relief of housing advocates, who say reducing loan debt can best help homeowners keep making loan payments and avoid foreclosure.

The banks, including Ally, Bank of America, Chase, Citibank and Wells Fargo, provided more than $50 billion in gross relief nationwide, though overseers did not credit all of it dollar-for-dollar, settlement reports show.

Nearly $4 billion in Florida relief has been started or approved for principal-forgiveness trials, though homeowners must stay current on payments and meet other guidelines to qualify for the relief.

Attorney General Pam Bondi said Tuesday that she was pleased with banks' progress but acknowledged many homeowners remained in distress.

"I am very encouraged by what we have accomplished so far," she said in a statement, "but I realize that there are still many Floridians facing the loss of their family homes."

Contact Drew Harwell at (727) 893-8252 or dharwell@tampabay.com.

Big banks meet obligations of 'robo-signing' settlement, but homeowner relief falls short 03/18/14 [Last modified: Wednesday, March 19, 2014 7:01am]
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