Will eminent domain start affecting Silicon Valley?

Richmond mortgage eminent domain battle expanding

Carolyn Said | SF Gate | December 9, 2013 | link
  • Patti Castillo, Kayla Castillo, reaching for the family dog, Chico, and Robert Castillo live in Richmond. Photo: Michael Short, The Chronicle
    Patti Castillo, Kayla Castillo, reaching for the family dog, Chico, and Robert Castillo live in Richmond. Photo: Michael Short, The Chronicle

For Patti and Robert Castillo of Richmond, using eminent domain to prevent foreclosures boils down to a simple reality.

“We are living paycheck to paycheck just to pay the mortgage,” Patti Castillo said. Reducing their principal through eminent domain “would help keep money in our pockets and let us stay in our house.”

Their mortgage on a modest house now worth half of the $420,000 they paid for it in 2005 is among 624 home loans that the city of Richmond has threatened to seize via eminent domain in an effort to restructure them to be more affordable.

While homeowners like the Castillos welcome the idea, the banking industry loathes the idea of municipalities forcibly seizing mortgages and is vigorously fighting the effort. Last week, the American Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit against the nation’s top housing regulator, seeking information on whether it’s been unduly influenced by the banking industry.

The Federal Housing Finance Agency in August threatened possible legal action against localities that pursue eminent domain for mortgages, and said it might bar Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac from backing new home loans in those areas.

Now the ACLU’s lawsuit seeks to uncover “the nature of (the FHFA’s) relationship with the financial industry,” said Linda Lye, a staff attorney at the ACLU of Northern California. “Its unusual and very aggressive stance raises potential questions of governmental integrity.”

An FHFA representative declined to comment.

The eminent domain plan, in which cities would forcibly acquire mortgages at discounts, then help homeowners refinance into smaller, more affordable home loans, is at heart a form of principal reduction, Lye said.

“Principal reduction is very mainstream; there have been calls for it from entities including the secretary of the Treasury,” she said. “Communities like Richmond particularly interested in principal reduction are disproportionately minority. The FHFA should be treading very carefully and looking at whether its conduct has an extra impact on communities of color. The general concern is that they would be effectively red-lined.”

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