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Renters ‘Lost in the Shuffle’ in Anti-Foreclosure Efforts


A foreclosed home in Winchester, Va. (Jay Mallin/ZUMA Press)

Mortgage giant Fannie Mae’s recent announcement that it will give homeowners facing foreclosure the chance to stay in their properties as renters for as long as a year is the latest aggressive move by the government to help troubled borrowers and tenants avoid being evicted. But as past efforts to stem the foreclosure crisis have already shown, even well-intentioned programs haven’t managed to reach significant numbers of people in peril – meaning any new approach faces a tough road ahead.

[Economy1]Consider, for example, a new federal law approved in May that protects renters from foreclosure evictions by giving them the right to stay in their residences after foreclosure for 90 days or for the duration of of their leases. Despite the new law, some tenants aren’t getting notice of their rights and are simply moving out, housing advocates said.

The problem has been particularly widespread surrounding a provision in the law, called the Helping Families Save their Homes Act, that allows for borrowers with Section 8 affordable housing vouchers the option to also stay in their residences when their landlord is in foreclosure. Some tenants who call their state or local housing authorities in Massachusetts and Connecticut after a foreclosure eviction notice are mistakenly told they have to move, noted Judith Liben, a senior housing attorney with the Massachusetts Law Reform Institute, a nonprofit legal services advocacy group. Better training of housing authority staff would help fix the situation, she said.

“Even with well-intentioned policies, there’s a disconnect between a good idea put into law, and what really happens on the street,” Liben said. “We see that disconnect on the ground, all the time.”

Despite anti-foreclosure initiatives by the government and lenders, the housing crisis has continued to worsen. Foreclosure notices totaled a record high of nearly 938,000 in just the third quarter of this year, according to RealtyTrac, an online foreclosure database. The Center for Responsible Lending predicts a total of 9 million foreclosures by 2012. Vacant and abandoned foreclosed properties are adding to neighborhood blight problems. Renters increasingly have become caught as innocent bystanders, evicted often without notice when their landlord faces foreclosure.

The new federal protections are supposed to address that. But in some cases, tenants in foreclosed homes either can’t reach real estate agents in charge of selling the properties to let them know they want to continue renting, or they get incorrect information from agents and think their only option is to move out immediately, said Shelley White, litigation director at New Haven Legal Assistance in Connecticut. In some instances, law firms send misleading letters that imply a financial incentive to move, known as cash for keys, is a renters’ only option, she said.

“We’re definitely seeing a lot of problems with tenants that just get notes from Realtors that say the bank has foreclosed on your property, and it’s time to get out,” Wright said.

The difficulties in outreach to tenants comes as the government continues expanding options and assistance to borrowers and renters dealing with foreclosure. In addition to the new federal law, the Treasury Department plans soon to rollout its plan encouraging more short sales by offering financial incentives to lenders and borrowers. In a short sale, a homeowner sells his home for less than the amount owed on the mortgage, and lenders forgive the remaining loan balance.

Both Fannie and Freddie Mac earlier this year began allowing qualified tenants in foreclosed homes under their control to sign month-to-month leases. Freddie Mac also started offering former owners of foreclosed homes the month-to-month lease option. Last week, Fannie announced its new policy, which significantly expands on the idea, allowing some owners who didn’t qualify for a loan modification and can’t afford their mortgage the option of staying on in their homes. The owner would voluntarily turn over the property to Fannie in a “deed for lease” transaction, instead of going through a lengthy foreclosure process. The former owners in exchange would be given the option to rent back their homes for at least a year. Unlike in a short sale, their credit is unlikely to take a hit because of the transaction. And even investors may be eligible, meaning they would turn over their properties to Fannie, but their tenants would have the option to remain.

“This is huge,” said Dean Baker, co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research, who proposed a similar own to rent idea when the financial crisis first hit two years ago.

Baker would prefer that Fannie’s new policy extend the the rent-back period even further, to five or 10 years. But, overall, Baker said Fannie’s program addresses the problem of growing numbers of vacant properties, and represents a shift to promoting rental policies as a foreclosure solution. “You’re guaranteed a year, and that gives you some stability and a chance to plan ahead,” he said.

He and others also described Fannie’s new program as a big step forward over some efforts currently in place to help renters in foreclosed homes.

Fannie Mae, for example, already gives renters in foreclosed homes the option to continue renting on a month-to-month basis, or to accept a cash for keys offer. According to Fannie’s data, the financial help has been a far more popular option. Since January, it has tallied 3,500 cash for keys agreements, and 300 signed leases. Fannie Mae spokesperson Amy Bonitatibus said the program was set up to offer both choices to renters. It is open to all tenants of Fannie Mae-owned properties, but she had no information on specifically how many tenants had been approached with offers.

The small number of leases signed isn’t really surprising, said Danilo Pelletiere, research director for the National Low Income Housing Coalition. The options to renters were offered post-foreclosure, by which time some tenants may have decided to make other living arrangements. Cash for keys can be a more attractive option than a month to month lease. The new federal tenant protection law also overlapped with Fannie’s program, so some tenants may not have felt a need to sign leases, he said.

Pelletiere and other advocates said they have much higher expectations for Fannie’s new approach for former owners. A deed for lease transaction can happen far more quickly than a foreclosure, and having a longer-term lease will be more attractive to many people. Fannie also has hired a national property management company to handle the new program, while its existing rental initiative for tenants uses local real estate agents and property managers.

“Because of the way it’s designed, it should do a much better job,” Pelletiere said. “That makes it much more likely that we’ll see a national response. It provides a way for Fannie to be proactive and to get to the property earlier. And it costs less than getting someone out of a home and foreclosing on them.”

Alan Mallach, a senior fellow at the National Housing Institute and the Brookings Institution, agreed. “What’s interesting will be to look at how many people this new policy affects,” Mallach said. “I think it will be significant.”

Pelletiere said he also found some encouragement in early results from Freddie Mac’s program earlier this year to rent back properties to former owners of foreclosed homes on a month by month basis. According to Freddie Mac’s figures, almost 12,000 units entered its portfolio of foreclosed homes between April and October. In 70 percent of cases, a borrower is working on a mortgage loan modification, leasing the home back, or accepting cash for keys. In another 27 percent of cases, the property was vacant by the time Freddie Mac took it over. In three to four percent of cases, an owner or renter faced eviction. Of those occupants who signed leases, two-thirds were owner occupants and one-third were tenants. Spokesman Brad German said he had no further breakdown of the numbers.

The long-held belief has been that owners would decline to become renters again, so having more owners than renters sign rental leases is an encouraging sign for Fannie’s new program, Pelletiere said.

Still, he and others noted the government wouldn’t be prompted to move toward a more aggressive rental policy if a greater number of loan modifications were successful. A recent report by the Congressional Oversight Panel for the government’s taxpayer-funded bailout program criticized the progress being made under the administration’s Making Home Affordable program, saying that in a best case scenario it would prevent fewer than half of expected foreclosures.

As foreclosure notices pile up, troubled tenants and borrowers don’t always understand they might be eligible for help, or they don’t know who to contact to apply for programs, or they just give up and leave upon a foreclosure – even in cases where they have new federal laws and programs intended to avoid evictions. To Liben, the Massachusetts housing attorney, one constant of the housing crisis has been that some people “get lost in the shuffle.” She’s waiting to see if that will finally change.

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