Wilkerson bill would freeze subprime takings

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Apr. 2, 2008

Saying that lawmakers on both the federal and state level have not done enough to stem the worsening tide of foreclosures, state Sen. Dianne Wilkerson filed last week a triad of bills that would put in place a 180-day moratorium on foreclosures resulting from "unfair" subprime loans, give tenants four to six months relief from eviction and provide for a foreclosure judicial process.

Wilkerson said that the package is a necessary follow-up to law enacted late last year that requires the licensing of mortgage originators, in-person counseling for first-time homebuyers, and a state-supervised foreclosure database.

Suffolk County saw 508 foreclosure petitions between February and March and 363 properties for auction in the same period, according to ForeclosureMass.com. Last year, 29,607 foreclosure petitions were filed, up 55 percent from 2006, according to Citizens' Housing and Planning Association (CHAPA).

"It really dealt with future activities," she said of the November legislation. "Therein lies the problem."

Lenders who underwrite the mortgages have often balked at more regulation and oversight of the industry, pointing to a lack of income documentation on the loans and a few bad actors casting a pall on the entire subprime mortgage lending industry.

Wilkerson's bills have drawn support from top lawmakers, including a number of committee chairs.

The bill establishing a moratorium would apply to mortgages that have an adjustable rate loan with an introductory period of three years or less; a debt-to income ratio in excess of 50 percent ; have a loan that was given on a "stated income" basis with no regard to a borrowers ability to repay, among other factors, according to Wilkerson's office.

"We desperately need to freeze this," she said. "We have whole streets, up and down the streets, of vacant houses."

State lawmakers passed a similar moratorium - one that lasted 120 days - in 1991, she added. That moratorium was more limited, affecting Springfield, Boston, and Worcester.

The bill also requires that no interest or fees accrue during the moratorium, and no evictions be initiated during the moratorium except if the property is sold to a purchaser for a cause originating prior to the foreclosure.

The bill would also establish a commission that includes representatives from the offices of the governor, state treasurer, state attorney general, and the House and Senate, in order to draft guidelines requiring judicial review of all mortgage foreclosures in Massachusetts.

The second bill mandates that owners seeking to foreclose have "just cause" in evicting tenants, protecting tenants who are currently paying rent and living in the home legally. Owners who violate that would be fined $10,000 for each separate offense, according to the legislation. The bill has a sunset provision, set for December 2013.

The third bill, which Wilkerson calls the "most critical," requires that all foreclosures of residential mortgages on 1 to 4 family owner-occupied properties only be initiated by filing a foreclosure complaint in the Superior Housing Court of the county in which the property is located.

Thirty other states have a similar requirement, she said.

On the House side, Rep. Frank Smizik (D-Brookline), House chair of the Committee on Environment, Natural Resources and Agriculture, is co-sponsoring two of the bills, with Rep. Liz Malia (D-Jamaica Plain) sponsoring the bill calling for "just cause" for removal of a tenant. Sens. Susan Tucker (D-Andover), co-chair of the Housing Committee, and Harriette Chandler (D-Worcester), who sits on the Senate Ways and Means Committee.

At a State House press conference last week announcing the bills, Rep. Denise Provost (D-Somerville) and Boston City Councilor Chuck Turner also expressed support, with Turner calling predatory lending practices had reached an "obscene level."

One Dorchester resident, Flossy Parker, 64, told the roomful of community activists, city officials and lawmakers she was close to losing her home of almost 30 years because of an adjustable rate mortgage.

"I consider this a package to stem the bleeding," Wilkerson told the Reporter. "None of that is duplication."

The bills have a long road ahead of them in an increasingly shortening session, one already packed with borrowing bills to spend on the state's transportation, environmental and other infrastructures, along with legislation dealing with the clean energy industry and the biotechnology field.

The House and Senate's versions of Gov. Deval Patrick's proposed $28.2 billion budget also loom, with the fiscal year ending in July.

The mortgage foreclosure package was created with the help of the newly-established Massachusetts Alliance Against Predatory Lending, a group of 21 organizations that includes the Association for Community Organizing for Reform Now (ACORN), City Life/Vida Urbana, Greater Boston Legal Services, the Green-Rainbow Party of Massachusetts, and the Mass Law Reform Institute.

Reports from State House News Service were used for this article.