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Banks say they have given $26 billion in homeowner relief so far

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The nation’s biggest banks provided more than $26 billion in relief to struggling homeowners between March 1 and Sept. 30, as part of a settlement earlier this year with state and federal officials over widespread foreclosure abuses, according to numbers released Monday.

Joseph A. Smith Jr., the former North Carolina banking commissioner hired by the government to ensure the banks follow through on their promises, reported that more than 300,000 homeowners have benefitted so far, for an average of roughly $84,385 per borrower.

“I’m encouraged,” Smith said in an interview Monday morning. “There’s pretty good evidence that they’re on track to complete their obligations sooner rather than later. . . . I think it does show that the relief is going to be significant.”

The aid undertaken by the five banks involved in the settlement — Bank of America, JPMorgan Chase, Wells Fargo, Ally Financial and Citigroup — has taken various forms, from lowering loan balances to completing growing numbers of short sales to helping refinance many homeowners into mortgages with much lower interest rates.

Each bank is responsible for providing a set amount of aid under the terms of the settlement, but different kinds of relief receive different amounts of credit. In general, banks received more credit for providing aid during the first year of the settlement and for activities such as reducing principal on loans and refinancing mortgages. Short sales, in which a bank agrees to sell the property for less than the borrower owes and forgive any remaining debt, are not credited dollar for dollar.

Given those incentives, banks have been eager to complete their relief obligations well before the three-year requirement in the settlement. Bank of America said last week, for instance, that it had either “completed or approved” nearly $16 billion in consumer relief for about 164,000 homeowners and expected to meet its obligations within the first year of the deal.

Still, some consumer advocates have argued that there has been too little relief and that what aid has come is not reaching reaching those homeowners most in need.

“Today’s report shows that the mortgage settlement is still not helping those hardest hit by the foreclosure crisis,” Brian Kettenring, executive director of the advocacy group Campaign for a Fair Settlement, said in statement. “There are some encouraging signs, but the most vulnerable communities are reporting very few principal reduction modifications. We need to ensure that these funds have a real impact on hardest hit communities, and that banks aren’t just cleaning up their balance sheets.”

Monday numbers were self-reported and submitted by the banks to Smith last week. He said that he has yet to confirm their accuracy but that in the coming months he will verify the banks’ claims alongside an outside auditing firm he has hired.

The report shows that banks have completed a total of $552.7 million worth of relief in Maryland, $401.9 million in Virginia and $26.2 million of relief in the District. By contrast, large foreclosure-battered states, such as California and Florida, have received $8.9 billion and $3.6 billion in relief, respectively.

The deal between banks and the government, finalized in February, represented the largest industry settlement since an agreement with tobacco companies in 1998.

Critics have described it as too limited — not able to help more than a fraction of homeowners in need — and as too little punishment for the banks involved, given their widespread foreclosure abuses. State and federal officials who negotiated the deal have argued that the settlement never was intended to be a panacea, but that it will provide quick and much-needed relief to many homeowners throughout the country.

While much of the attention surrounding the landmark settlement earlier this year focused on the banks’ agreement to lower loan balances, fast-track short sales and offer more loan modifications, those requirements marked only part of the overall deal.

Earlier this fall, more than 300 changes went into effect for how banks service mortgages and interact with troubled homeowners. Those new standards, say government officials, are key to repairing the broken mortgage-servicing system.

The changes include forbidding the practice of filing forged and shoddy legal paperwork to speed foreclosure cases — a process known as “robo-signing,” which triggered national outrage in 2010 and led to initial settlement talks.

In addition, banks no longer are allowed to foreclose on homeowners while simultaneously working with them on a loan modification, a process known as “dual tracking.” They must give homeowners a single point of contact, rather than routing each call to employees unfamiliar with the case. They also must explore other options to keep borrowers in their homes, only resorting to foreclosure when those efforts fail.

Smith said Monday that he is working to ensure that banks have indeed begun to adhere to the new standards.

The settlement also set aside $2.5 billion to help states pay for housing counselors, mortgage mediation, legal aid and other efforts aimed at helping homeowners. As recently as last month, less than half that money had been put to such programs, and some states had instead used their funds to plug budget holes.

According to a recent report from the Maryland-based nonprofit Enterprise Community Partners, which details each state’s use of settlement funds, only 14 states have committed to putting their entire windfall toward housing programs. A dozen more have dedicated at least three-quarters of their funds toward such efforts.

Smith said that banks must submit another detailed update on their relief efforts to him in February.

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