FAQ: The foreclosure settlement
Officials acknowledged that the final sum will reach only a fraction of homeowners across the country whose homes are collectively worth $750 billion less than what is owed on their mortgages. But they argued that it was a meaningful step in healing the housing market.
The priority of the settlement was not to punish banks, officials said. Another wave of punishment is on its way, they vowed.
“This is neither the beginning nor the end of our work to hold banks and other institutions accountable for the destruction they’ve caused families, communities and country,” said Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan. “Today’s settlement should serve as a warning.”
The deal was brought on by revelations that banks were using forged and shoddy paperwork to foreclose rapidly on struggling homeowners, a practice known as “robo-signing.” Outrage over those practices led to 16 months of settlement talks between state and federal officials and five large banks.
The officials who crafted Thursday’s settlement were careful to leave the door open to a wide range of future litigation, despite efforts by banks to shield themselves from such legal actions. It allows for future actions over fair-housing and fair-lending violations, as well as civil rights claims. It doesn’t bar individuals from joining class-action lawsuits. Nor does it limit the lawsuits that private investors can file in search of damages, some of which have already been launched.
That means the legal hangover from the mortgage bubble is probably far from over for many of the country’s largest banks.
Last September, federal regulators launched a broad legal assault on 17 big banks, claiming they sold nearly $200 billion in fraudulent mortgage investments to housing giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.
Since then, as the housing slump has continued to weigh down the larger economy and movements as disparate as the tea party and Occupy Wall Street have raged against the lack of accountability for the crisis, the pressure for regulators to hold individuals and institutions accountable has only grown.
New investigative unit
President Obama announced in his recent State of the Union address a new unit that would would “expand our investigations into the abusive lending and packaging of risky mortgages that led to the housing crisis.” Days later, Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. said the Justice Department had issued civil subpoenas to 11 financial institutions.
Helping to lead the new investigative unit is New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, who for months had been critical of the foreclosure settlement because of concerns that it might prevent deeper investigations into mortgage misdeeds and could let banks off too easily.