Don't blame the lawyers. The crisis over faulty or fraudulent paperwork in mortgage foreclosures — which is either a big deal or a humongous deal, depending on which experts you believe — is the fault of arrogant, greedy lenders who played fast and loose with the basic property rights of homeowners.
Banks and other lenders, it seems, made statements in courts of law that turned out not to be true. Because judges have such an underdeveloped sense of humor when it comes to prevarication, this mess may be with us for a while.
The mortgage industry would love to blame the whole thing on predatory, opportunistic lawyers who are seizing on mere technicalities to forestall untold numbers of foreclosures that should legitimately proceed. The bankers are right when they complain that the delays are gumming up the housing market, as potential buyers for soon-to-be-foreclosed properties are forced to bide their time until all the questions about documentation and proper title are answered.
But it's the bankers' own fault that there are so many instances of foreclosure documentation with legal loopholes big enough to drive a moving van through. During the years of the real estate boom, lenders cut corners with paperwork in order to make as many loans — and sell them to other lenders, who often sliced and diced them into securities that were then sold to investors — as quickly as possible. This haste and inattention to detail, now coming to light, are partly responsible for the current crisis.
Laws vary from state to state, but all accept the principle that borrowers who fail to meet the contractual obligation to pay their mortgages can be subject to foreclosure and eviction. The process is devastating for families and for neighborhoods. In many cases, I believe, all parties would be better off if some way could be found to avoid foreclosure — modifying the terms of the loan, say, by lowering the interest rate or even reducing the principal to reflect the fall in housing prices. I recognize, however, that there are many other cases in which foreclosure is the preferable option or perhaps the only option.
But it's also necessary that the mortgage-holder have the legal right to foreclose. Anyone who has ever bought a house is familiar with the inches-thick stack of documents that have to be signed, sealed, initialed and notarized. It turns out that financial institutions often didn't dot every "i" or cross every "t" — meaning that in some cases, it may not be clear that the nominal mortgage holder has the clear and undisputed right to take possession of the property.
These may be technicalities, but there's nothing mere about them. For one thing, if borrowers are expected to play by the rules, lenders should be expected to do the same. For another, there can't be a functioning real estate market without the ability to establish clear title. Lawyers probing this aspect of the foreclosure crisis are doing the system a favor.
The other big problem is that lenders have been processing foreclosures with assembly-line speed, eliminating delay wherever possible — sometimes substituting electronic signatures for the ink-on-paper kind, for example. In the information age, some of this qualifies as sensible streamlining. But what doesn't make sense is moving the foreclosure documents along so quickly, and in such overwhelming volume, that the person signing them — whether by computer or quill pen — couldn't possibly have time to read them. We now know that some individuals, working as processors, have been signing off on up to 10,000 foreclosure documents a month.
In 23 states, every foreclosure must involve a court hearing. Sharp-eyed attorneys, representing delinquent homeowners, have unearthed cases in which high-volume "robo-signers" submitted affidavits attesting that they reviewed all the loan files personally — when, in fact, they had not. This is just the sort of thing that puts judges in a really bad mood.
The Obama administration has declined to call for an official moratorium on foreclosures. This is understandable: In most cases a moratorium would just delay the inevitable, while impeding any momentum the housing market might otherwise be able to build.
But maybe the crisis will make the banks realize that they ought to be doing fewer foreclosures and more loan modifications — sensible adjustments that allow deserving families to stay in their homes. And if this happens, we'll have the lawyers to thank.