Despite Wall Street’s recent gains, the foreclosure crisis that displaced 10 million Americans continues to wreak havoc on communities. One ongoing problem is that 10.7 million homeowners are stuck in underwater homes, in which the mortgage is more than the house is currently worth. Although the federal government doled out $700 billion to Wall Street via TARP during the 2008 financial crisis, it has not taken bold action to solve this problem. Money set aside during the bailout to help homeowners remains largely unspent, and a key federal housing regulator refused to pursue mortgage write-downs for struggling borrowers, even though their own analysis showed these loan modifications would save the agency money.
In this vacuum, several cities have begun to take matters into their own hands, as Peter Dreier reported on for The Nation. One plan by private equity company Mortgage Resolution Partners proposes that cities use eminent domain—a power traditionally reserved for seizing property for public use—to seize mortgage loans. The amount owed on the loans would then be reduced so that the borrower was no longer underwater, avoiding foreclosure. In January 2013, Brockton, Massachusetts commissioned a study and formed a working group to investigate using eminent domain to help struggling homeowners. In September 2013, the city council of Richmond, California, voted to move forward with such a plan.
One might think these small, local efforts shouldn’t be of much concern to Wall Street—after all, Richmond’s plan affects a mere 624 loans. But one of Wall Street’s most powerful trade groups, the Securities Industry and Financial Markets Association (SIFMA), has responded with ferocious urgency. SIFMA is the attack dog the largest Wall Street banks send when they don’t want their names attached to politically controversial lobbying efforts or lawsuits. The group does everything from denying that “too big to fail” still exists to drafting lengthy comment letters arguing for weaker financial regulation.
New e-mails obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request by the Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment (ACCE) and a coalition of other community groups and shared with The Nation reveal the extent to which SIFMA has been spearheading Wall Street’s fight against using eminent domain to mitigate the foreclosure crisis. (The complete set of e-mails are available at the website of the ACLU, which sued the FHFA when the original FOIA request was ignored). When Brockton began considering using eminent domain, SIFMA employees traveled there and kept an entire section of its website, complete with an array of resources, to decrying the plans.