By CHRISTOPHER S. RUGABER The Associated Press
WASHINGTON — U.S. banks have taken another step to clear away the wreckage of the 2008 financial crisis by agreeing to pay $8.5 billion to settle charges that they wrongfully foreclosed on millions of homeowners.
The deal announced Monday could compensate hundreds of thousands of Americans whose homes were seized because of abuses such as “robo-signing,” when banks automatically signed off on foreclosures without properly reviewing documents. The agreement will also help eliminate huge potential liabilities for the banks.
But consumer advocates complained that regulators settled for too low a price by letting banks avoid full responsibility for foreclosures that victimized families and fueled an exodus from neighborhoods across the country.
The settlement ends an independent review of loan files required under a 2011 action by regulators. Bruce Marks, CEO of the advocacy group Neighborhood Assistance Corp. of America, noted that ending the review will cut short investigations into the banks’ practices.
“The question of who’s to blame – the homeowners or the lenders – if you stop this investigation now, that will always be an open-ended question,” Marks said.
The banks, which include JPMorgan Chase, Bank of America and Wells Fargo, will pay about $3.3 billion to mortgagors to end the foreclosure reviews.
The rest of the money – $5.2 billion – will be used to lower mortgage bills and forgive outstanding principal on home sales that generated less than borrowers owed on their mortgages.
A total of 3.8 million people are eligible for payments under the deal announced by the federal Office of Comptroller of the Currency and the Federal Reserve. Those payments could range from a few hundred dollars to up to $125,000.
Homeowners who were wrongly denied a loan modification will be entitled to relatively small payments. By contrast, people whose homes were unfairly seized and sold will be eligible for the biggest payments.
“We are pleased that there is recognition that banks foreclosed improperly, but we’ll have to wait and see how much direct relief flows through to homeowners in Maine,” said Will Lund, superintendent of the Maine Bureau of Consumer Credit Protection.
Lund said he has not yet seen details of the settlement, but he remains optimistic “that the funds will find their way to the people that need it the most.”
Lund encourages any Mainers who were foreclosed on to contact his office at 624-8527 or at (800) 332-8529. His staff has the ability to contact the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency or the Federal Reserve.
Diane Thompson, a lawyer with the National Consumer Law Center, complained that the foreclosure settlement won’t actually compensate mortgagors for the actual harm they suffered. The deal “caps (banks’) liability at a total number that’s less than they thought they were going to pay going in,” she said.
The companies involved in the settlement also include Citigroup, MetLife Bank, PNC Financial Services, Sovereign, SunTrust, U.S. Bank and Aurora. The 2011 action also included GMAC Mortgage, HSBC Finance Corp. and EMC Mortgage Corp.
Regulators announced the deal on the same day that Bank of America agreed to pay $11.6 billion to government-backed mortgage financier Fannie Mae to settle claims related to mortgages that soured during the housing crash.
The agreements come as U.S. banks are showing renewed signs of financial health, extending their recovery from the 2008 crisis that nearly toppled many of them. They are lending more and earning greater profits than at any time since the Great Recession began in December 2007.
Monday’s foreclosure settlement doesn’t close the book on the housing crisis, which caused more than 4 million foreclosures. It covers only consumers who were in foreclosure in 2009 and 2010. Some banks didn’t agree to the settlement. And resolving millions of claims involving multiple banks and mortgage companies is complicated.
“It’s going to take a few more years to get it sorted out,” said Bert Ely, an independent banking consultant.
Leaders of a House oversight panel have asked regulators for a briefing on the proposed settlement. Regulators had refused to brief Congress before announcing the deal publicly.
The settlement is separate from a $25 billion settlement among 49 state attorneys general, federal regulators and five banks: Ally, formerly known as GMAC, Bank of America, Citigroup, JPMorgan Chase and Wells Fargo.
Staff Writer Dennis Hoey contributed to this report.