Eminent domain has not received as much attention since the controversial decision in the 2005 case Kelo v. City of New London. However, the issue could become a hotly debated topic in the current session of the Maryland General Assembly, since the introduction of HB1365/SB850 Real Property – Prohibition on Acquiring Mortgages or Deeds of Trust by Condemnation on February 7th; the bills propose the prohibition of acquiring mortgages through eminent domain, stating, “The use of eminent domain to acquire mortgages undermines the sanctity of the contractual relationship between a borrower and a creditor.”
The issue of using eminent domain as a vehicle to restructure underwater mortgages became a national conversation in 2012, when a few municipalities began the discussion as a means to assist underwater homeowners. The plan caught the attention of Baltimore officials, who began a discussion last year of doing something similar.
As the housing market slowly recovers, many homeowners are emerging from a negative equity position on their homes. According to the Zillow Negative Equity Report (zillow.com), the national negative equity rate for homeowners with a mortgage dropped to 21% during Q3 2013 (from a peak of 31.4% during Q1 2012); while 14.7% of homeowners who own their home free and clear are underwater. Regional statistics vary depending on the strength of the local markets compared to peak home values.
The Baltimore Sun reports that about 13% of mortgages in the Baltimore-Towson area are underwater; neighborhood percentages vary, and there some with significantly more underwater homeowners (Some call on city to explore eminent domain to combat blight; Program targets underwater mortgages, By Natalie Sherman; The Baltimore Sun; November 25, 2013).
A recent industry article looks at the back story and status such plans, as well as discussing some practical considerations. The article asserts that the concept is “far from dead,” stating that “…Local government and community leaders have legitimate concerns about their constituents, many of whom are struggling with mortgage payments on inflated loans that have made their homes unaffordable, and nearly impossible for them to sell without sufficient equity to pay off the loans…” However, the conclusion states that such a plan at present “…appears wrought with complications and does not appear likely to lead to any significant chance of furthering its stated “public” purpose-economic development…” The result may be “lengthy and expensive legal battles; and possible disruptions or changes to the credit industry, which decrease access to mortgages and/or increase interest rates (Dellapelle & Kestner (2013). Underwater mortgages: Can eminent domain bail them out? Real Estate Issues, 38(2), 42-47).
In response to the effort to implement eminent domain in such a way, the Federal Housing Finance Agency (FHFA.gov), the regulator and conservator of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac as well as the regulator of the Federal Home Loan Banks asked for public input; and subsequently issued a General Counsel Memorandum on August 7th 2013:
The General Counsel Memorandum was a summary and analysis of the public comments and input regarding the use of eminent domain to restructure mortgages. The memo discussed a number of legal issues as well as issues that relate to the FHFA. The memo stated the pros and cons of such a plan too: Proponents claimed “…if securities have lost value, then the proper and fair valuation of mortgages backing the securities through eminent domain results in no loss to a securities investor, but permits a restructuring of a loan that would benefit homeowners and stabilize housing values…” while opponents point to “…numerous legal problems with the proposed use of eminent domain; some centered on the proper use of eminent domain itself and others on attendant constitutional issues related to taking of property or sanctity of contract. Opponents noted strong reaction of financial markets that support home financing in terms of upsetting existing contracts but as well creating an unworkable situation for providing and pricing capital based on the uncertainty of such a use of eminent domain…” However, the conclusion states, “…there is a rational basis to conclude that the use of eminent domain by localities to restructure loans for borrowers that are “underwater” on their mortgages presents a clear threat to the safe and sound operations of Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac and the Federal Home Loan Banks as provided in federal law…”
by Dan Krell
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