Sweeping Bills Passed To Help Homeowners

By Philip Rucker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, April 3, 2008

Maryland lawmakers passed some of the nation's most ambitious legislation to control the housing crisis yesterday by toughening oversight of the mortgage-lending industry and establishing preemptive measures to help people at risk of foreclosure.

Taken together, Maryland's bills are among the most sweeping in the country as legislatures from California to Florida consider proposals to stem the escalating rate of foreclosures.

Components of Gov. Martin O'Malley's legislation package cleared the Democratic-controlled General Assembly yesterday, and other bills advancing in it were widely expected to pass as soon as this morning. O'Malley (D) could sign some of the bills into law this afternoon, and the emergency measures would take effect immediately.

The bills include making the most egregious mortgage schemes subject to criminal prosecution, extending the foreclosure timetable from 15 to 150 days and prohibiting prepayment penalties and transactions in which homeowners are tricked into signing over their houses to third parties.

Lawmakers hailed the legislation as a signature accomplishment for O'Malley, whose administration introduced the package after conducting a broad study of the housing crisis last year.

"There are people who are suffering in silence and have the feeling they are two or three months behind in [payments] and don't know who to turn to," said Sen. Ulysses Currie (D), whose Prince George's County district is among the hardest hit with foreclosures. "The bills will give these people a sense of hope and direction."

O'Malley is expected to announce soon that he will lead a statewide campaign to inform homeowners facing foreclosure about how they can seek help and about new state programs available, said Thomas E. Perez, secretary of labor, licensing and regulation. The governor will appear in ads on TV, on radio, in newspapers and on the sides of buses, Perez said.

The campaign will reach out to people falling behind in payments with direct-mail postcards and visits from state officials, guiding them to state agencies and nonprofit organizations for help.

"We will be using every creative available outreach tool to ensure that Marylanders in distress are aware of their rights and aware of their options," Perez said. "Passing laws is of minimal benefit if people aren't aware of the new rights that they have."

O'Malley also is scheduled to testify before Congress next week about his administration's approach to the housing crisis, said Rick Abbruzzese, a spokesman for the governor.

Maryland's legislation would provide "immediate relief" to homeowners facing foreclosure, Perez said.

"There's a lot of talk at the federal level, but there's seldom any action, so that's why the governor has taken the bull by the horns at the state level," Perez said.

Perez said the legislation overhauls lending practices and seeks to prevent the kinds of predatory loans that contributed to the mortgage crisis.

Steven A. Silverman, chief of consumer protection under Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler (D), said the legislation protects homeowners against "foreclosure scams and shady lending practices."

The mortgage-lending industry largely supported the administration's proposals. Kathleen Murphy, president and chief executive of the Maryland Bankers Association, attributed the consensus to O'Malley's Maryland Homeownership Preservation Task Force. The group included lawmakers, community advocates and industry leaders who reviewed mortgage laws and came up with ideas for change.

"All of that time deliberating the issues, I believe, has resulted in what is a very good package that will provide meaningful reform for borrowers but also continue to have an environment in the state that legitimate lenders will want to lend in," Murphy said.

Phillip Robinson, executive director of the nonprofit group Civil Justice, which provides assistance to homeowners facing foreclosure, said the legislation, in particular the extension of the foreclosure timetable, will make "a huge difference."

"Those homeowners that have a legitimate defense will have much more of an opportunity to present that defense than they do under the current process," Robinson said.

The extension affects those who face foreclosure starting after the bill is signed but does not change foreclosures underway.

Lawmakers also are weighing a proposal to require people seeking subprime mortgages to meet with independent credit counselors before signing on to risky loans.

The number of people losing their housing in Maryland has risen at a startling pace. In February, more than 4,000 foreclosure actions were taken in Maryland, a ninefold increase from February 2007, according to RealtyTrac, which maintains foreclosure data.

O'Malley's bills have received overwhelming support in the legislature, although some lawmakers from suffering communities questioned whether the measures will do enough to help people who have lost their homes or are behind in their payments.

"They need a federal bailout from Congress," Del. Dereck E. Davis (D-Prince George's) said.

Sen. Thomas M. Middleton (D-Charles) said the state government "just doesn't have the financial wherewithal to really help people out."

Del. Veronica L. Turner (D-Prince George's), who represents hard-hit Fort Washington, said her constituents are thankful for any help they can get. "My constituents are calling me. They need help," she said. "A lot of people have already lost their homes before the help came."

Across the country, hundreds of bills are pending in legislatures to address the mortgage-lending industry, said Heather Morton, an analyst at the National Conference of State Legislatures.

But Maryland is at the forefront in developing a comprehensive package of laws to stem the tide of foreclosures, said Uriah King, a policy analyst at the Center for Responsible Lending. "I think Maryland, in particular, has taken a really strong step forward in addressing the underlying causes of the foreclosure crisis, particularly the reckless underwriting," King said.

Perez said he is receiving calls from his counterparts in other states asking "what we did and how we did it."

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