Why Florida Is Sitting on $300 Million Meant to Help Homeowners

Attorney General Pam Bondi has pledged to make the money available to homeowners; earlier this year, she called for suggestions from the public. (Photo: Flickr.)

By Cora Currier
ProPublica

Florida has the highest percentage of home loans in foreclosure in the country. So why is more than $300 million that could help homeowners sitting unused?

Florida was awarded those millions in February as part of the $25 billion national settlement between five of country’s biggest banks and forty-nine states and the District of Columbia. The settlement resolved allegations of wrongful foreclosures and other mortgage servicing abuses, and required banks to offer some homeowners the opportunity to modify their loans or refinance, or, in some cases pay homeowners directly for wrongful foreclosure.

The banks also had to pay $2.5 billion directly to state governments. Florida’s sum was the largest, after California, in part a measure of how deeply the mortgage crisis affected the sunshine state.

Yet Florida is one of just a few states where the Attorney General has not announced plans for a significant portion of the money. We’ve contacted every state to find out what they were doing with that money. Of the $2.5 billion going to states, just over a billion dollars has been pledged for housing-related programs, while a roughly equal amount has been diverted to plug budget holes or fund programs unrelated to the foreclosure crisis. $378 million is still to be determined, and almost all of that is Florida’s.

Florida’s funds are caught between the Attorney General, Republican Pam Bondi, and the Republican state legislature. Bondi has pledged to make the money available to homeowners; earlier this year, she called for suggestions from the public. Some state lawmakers, however, insist that it needs to go through the regular appropriations process u2014 where it could potentially be siphoned off into other programs. And that wouldn’t happen until March, when the legislative session begins.

“We were very happy about the Attorney General’s commitment early on that the money be used within the spirit of the settlement,” said Jaimie Ross, president of the Florida Housing Coalition, an advocacy organization. “But is it just going to sit there until the legislature starts so that we can wait to see how they want to use it? The silence is deafening.”

A spokesman for the Attorney General said, “it’s a matter of having a dialogue between the two sides.” He could not give a timeline for when a decision might be reached. The 2013 budget request Bondi submitted to the legislature last week made no mention of the settlement.

The mortgage settlement states that Florida’s money can be spent “as directed” by the Florida Attorney General for “purposes consistent with” the settlement, such as programs aimed at homeowner protection or consumer fraud. But the legislature should still “play a role,” according to Katie Betta, a spokeswoman for incoming State Senate President Don Gaetz, a Republican.

The Democratic minority leader of the state senate, Nan Rich, said, “It’s unconscionable to be sitting on this money.” 11 percent of Florida’s mortgaged homes are currently in foreclosure, and the state saw 92,000 completed foreclosures in the year ending August 2012, second only to California.

Both Rich and Jaimie Ross of Florida Housing Coalition expressed concern that the legislature could divert the money away from housing. One Democratic representative has already suggested it be used to fund a pay raise for state employees.

It wouldn’t be the first state to see that happen. In May, we showed how almost one billion dollars that states received for the settlement had gone to plug budget holes or fund programs unrelated to the housing crisis. California, for example, received $410 million, but it all went to the general fund. Ultimately, the Attorney General’s office ended up with just $18.4 million earmarked for housing counseling and overseeing the settlement.

Arizona’s state assembly diverted $50 million u2013 more than half the state’s total u2013 to the general fund. Housing advocates challenged the transfer in court, but a judge ruled this month that it was legitimate. North Carolina legislators also ended up rerouting $7.8 million that had been intended for housing counseling to free up money in the state budget.

New Jersey put the $75 million it received towards various social programs, including affordable housing. But the money funded preexisting programs, rather than supplementing them or starting new initiatives, as part of an effort to balance the budget.

A spokesman for the state treasury told us earlier this year that the settlement did not require them to spend extra money. “If we put [the money] into the budget and don’t have to cut something else, that’s a net gain,” he said. (The treasury didn’t respond to our more recent requests for comment.)

Advocates and some lawmakers protested the decision not to boost spending for housing. They say it may follow the letter of the settlement, but not the spirit. According to CoreLogic, New Jersey had the second-highest percentage of mortgages in foreclosure, after Florida.

What other states are doing with the money

When we first mapped out where the settlement millions were going, many states hadn’t yet outlined plans. We’ve updated our comprehensive map to show developments since then. Here’s a sampling of what’s happened:

  • Of Michigan’s $97.2 million, $10 million went to public schools. The rest is earmarked for a variety of housing-related programs, including $20 million for foreclosure mediation and $10 million for demolition of blighted buildings in Detroit.
  • All of Pennsylvania’s $66.5 million is going to housing and consumer protection programs—90 percent to an emergency mortgage assistance program, and the rest to initiatives in the Attorney General’s office.
  • Most of Oregon’s money went to the general fund. $3.78 million was dedicated to a new foreclosure mediation program, which, as the Oregonian recently reported, has so far been a bust because banks have refused to participate.
  • Washington State is offering the bulk of its $54 million to non-profits for a range of counseling and legal aid services, as well as to cities for demolition.
  • New Hampshire’s relatively small share — $9.6 million — is being used in part to staff a new financial fraud unit in the Attorney General’s office and to launch a statewide complaint database to help coordinate investigations. Roughly two-thirds of the money will go to grants to organizations offering legal aid and housing counseling.
  • With its $11 million, New Mexico is funding a new foreclosure hotline and a pilot program for facilitating settlements in court cases, among other homeowner-focused initiatives.
  • Wyoming dedicated its $2.6 million to a non-profit housing counseling organization.

Attorneys general and lawmakers are still working out how the money will be used in a few other states besides Florida:

  • Nevada’s Attorney General has already announced plans to spend $33.5 million from the settlement on foreclosure counseling. A spokeswoman said their office had formed an advisory committee to recommend to the governor and the legislature ways that the remaining $23.9 million could be used to help homeowners.
  • A spokeswoman for Alabama’s Attorney General said their office was still reviewing programs to determine how to spend $19 million.
  • Louisiana still has $17.7 million still to be allocated over the next few years to various programs, including settlement oversight, a financial fraud unit, and litigation over faulty drywall. A spokeswoman for the Attorney General said the office will work with the legislature on the exact allocations.
  • Kansas is waiting for its legislature to go into session in January to decide on how its $13.8 million will be split between general appropriations and the Attorney General’s office.
  • Alaska’s $3.3 million is being discussed between the Attorney General and the legislature. An assistant Attorney General said they would announce a plan in December.

Some of the states that turned over their settlement money to their legislature haven’t yet seen it spent. The biggest case is Texas, where the legislature won’t meet until January to determine how to budget the $134 million it received.  There’s no requirement that any of that money be spent on housing.

Additional reporting by Paul Kiel.

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