Thousands of foreclosed homeowners have until the end of the day Friday to file a claim for a cash payment from the $25 billion national mortgage settlement.
An estimated 43,000 Minnesotans who lost their homes during the foreclosure epidemic are eligible for a payment of at least $2,000, according to the Minnesota attorney general's office. As of Wednesday, 31,131, or about 70 percent of the eligible Minnesota borrowers, had filed claims.
Minnesota's response rate is the highest in the country, according to state Attorney General Lori Swanson. Nationally, about 56 percent of eligible borrowers have filed claims.
"We've been working very hard to reach out to people who are eligible," Swanson said. "We've done letters. We've done phone calls. We've done independent research to find people."
Claims must be postmarked by Jan. 18 or submitted online by midnight. Payments are to be mailed in mid-2013.
The refunds aim to give some compensation to people who lost their homes in foreclosure between 2008 and 2011. They stem from a $25 billion national mortgage settlement struck early last year among 49 state attorneys general, the federal government and five U.S. mortgage servicers: Wells Fargo & Co., JPMorgan Chase & Co., Bank of America Corp., Citigroup Inc. and Ally Financial Inc.
While it fell short of the bold response consumer advocates hoped for, the settlement is the centerpiece of the government's effort to ease the nation's ongoing foreclosure crisis. It's the largest multistate settlement since the 1998 tobacco settlement.
The settlement grew out of the robo-signing scandal that surfaced in 2010, in which mass-produced legal documents used in foreclosures turned out to be a fraudulent mess, riddled with errors and signed by people with no knowledge of the facts.
Part of the cash going to Minnesotans comes from a $1.5 billion fund the settlement created, and part of it from a $41 million payment Minnesota received from the settlement for its own use. The state decided to spend all of its portion beefing up the restitution to borrowers.
For borrowers to be eligible, their loans had to be serviced by one of the five companies and go into foreclosure between Jan. 1, 2008 and Dec. 31, 2011, and the property had to be owner-occupied, among other things.
The five mortgage servicers have a finite list of people eligible for the payments, said Geoff Greenwood, spokesman for the Iowa attorney general's office, a leader in the settlement. More than 2 million notice packages were mailed out in September and October, and another claim form was mailed in December. Those letters contain ID numbers required to file claims.
Authorities have been unable to locate about 8 to 9 percent of the borrowers.
Patrick Madigan, an assistant attorney general in Iowa, called that a good hit rate.
"Given that our population is 100 percent made up of people who lost their homes to foreclosure and by definition have moved, we feel pretty good we've been able to find 92 percent of people," Madigan said.
That only a little more than half of the eligible borrowers have filed claims might sound low, Madigan said, but that percentage is "actually quite high" compared to private class-action lawsuits.
Madigan said claims submitted after the deadline will be considered, but that authorities can't necessarily guarantee a payment.
The payouts are a fraction of the $25 billion package, most of which goes to other forms of relief such as reducing the principal amounts on mortgages, refinancing for homeowners who are underwater in their homes, anti-blight programs and benefits for service members forced to sell their homes at a loss.
As of November, 3,666 Minnesota borrowers received some sort of help, such as a loan refinance or short sale, through the settlement program since it started in March 2012, according to records from the Office of Mortgage Settlement Oversight. About 800 cases involved some type of principal reduction.
Consumer advocates say the program falls far short, and are pushing the oversight office for more details on where exactly the money is going.
"Even if all of the $25 billion was spent in the best possible way, it's still not adequate to address the entirety of the crisis," said Mark Ladov, counsel at the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University's law school.
Ladov and other consumer advocates say they fear that the foreclosure relief and mortgage modifications aren't going to the hardest-hit communities, or to people of color. Given the way the program is structured, he said, "it's much easier for the banks to target wealthier borrowers rather than spreading out the relief more broadly among borrowers in low- and moderate-income communities."
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