Q. Please explain the concept of the usury laws. Specifically, what are they, and who are they designed to protect? What are the usury laws on mortgage money in the Washington metropolitan area?
A. Many books have been written on the subject of usury laws. In my opinion, usury laws are the creation of benevolent legislators who are attempting to protect consumers against the "pernicious" money lender. Oversimplified, "usury" is defined as excessive-unconsionable-gain from the loan of money.
Credit, in one form or another, probably goes back to early, primitive societies. Our textbooks tell us that, seemingly from time immemorial, legislators have been troubled with excessive profits on money lent. The Code of Hammurabi, for example, fixed maximum rates on loans of grain at 33 1/3 percent, and on loans of silver at 20 percent.
The Romans enacted usury statutes which fixed mimimum interest rates, varying from time to time from a low of 4 1/6 percent to a high of 12 1/2 percent. Indeed, in the Middle Ages, the Biblical injunctions from Deuteronomy were widely adhered to, and the prohibitions against usury became quite severe.
"Thou shalt not lend upon usury to thy brother; usury of money . . . usury of anything . . . unto a stranger thou mayest lend upon usury" (23:19-20)
However, for every usury law on the books, exemptions upon exemptions upon exemptions became necessary. For example, in the District of Columbia the basic usury law is 6 percent, but there are numerous exemptions, including: credit cards-18 percent; credit unions-12 percent; commercial loans-no ceiling; and mortgages-currently 11 percent on first morgages.
Thus, one begins to see the complexities of the usury laws.
Currently, for all practical purposes there is no usury ceiling on morgage money in Maryland and in Virginia. In the District of Columbia, the mortgage interest rate ceiling is 11 percent, and borrowers are only permitted to pay one point on the loan to the lenders.
The question is always raised as to whether the usury ceilings truly protect the consumer. This is an age-old debate, which will never really be answered. Certainly, no one wants to pay more interest than necessary on any loan.
But, the money market is dictated not by local legislators, but by complex international and national events-such as the oil crisis, inflation and the policies of the Federal Reserve Board. Thus it often happens that local lenders, in order to keep up with the inflationary spiral, are forced to charge higher rates, if they are to be able to make loans at all. The mortgage rates in Virginia and Maryland, in my opinion, are quite competitive, albeit at an all-time high. And the usury laws in the District of Columbia-originally designed to protect consumers-will, in my opinion, only keep consumers out of the real estate housing market when money is tight.
It seems ironic that one waits for interest rates to drop, when houses in the Washington metropolitan area are soaring at a rate of approximately 14 percent a year. Tomorrow, even if the interest rates drop slightly, we may save ourselves a few dollars a month, but end up paying a few thousand dollars more for that house we want.
It is high time that legislators begin to understand that the money market is not set locally. Legislators should lift all usury ceilings, thereby exercising their responsibilities to the constituents they serve.
In the final analysis, what protection is a low interest ceiling if you can't obtain the mortgage funds to pay that house you want.
Benny L Kass is a Washington attorney. Write him in care of the Real Estate Section, The Washington Post. 1150 15th St., NW. Washington 20071.