Despite the return of the stock market, the housing market remains a mess and is filled with uncertainty. Scores of families across the country are on the cusp of losing their homes and being displaced from their communities. In many cases, foreclosure is a lose-lose-lose proposition, negatively impacting families, lenders, communities (and taxpayers) alike.
But many foreclosures are avoidable. Given the current scale of the problem, where one in four mortgages are underwater and over a million of foreclosures are predicted for this year, we should be stepping up the pace with implementing policies that can put a stop to the wave of mass foreclosures sweeping the country.
One idea that has shown promise is a reform to the foreclosure process which gets all the interested parties in a room to talk and explore renegotiation. Half the states already have a process in place to facilitate mediation but the process can be made more effective if it is inserted into the process automatically as a default. This approach is working where it has been tried and the next challenge is to get the federal government behind the event.
Alon Cohen and some of his colleagues at the Center for American Progress have been talking up this idea. They note that even though none of the parties are under any obligation to settle in mediation, in practice they settle more than half the time. In previous papers they have explored how foreclosure mediation works and its impacts at the state and local level when it is automatically part of the process.
Alon has just released a new paper describing what the federal government can do to support the spread of this innovative and successful practice. It is an important paper and is worth a read by anyone looking for solutions to the current mortgage mess.
His central proposal is that all mortgages backed by the U.S. government should be forced to go through mediation prior to foreclosure. This means Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, and FHA will require their loan servicers to implement automatic mediation prior to foreclosure. In this way automatic foreclosure mediation will be added to the list of “loss mitigation” activities already required of them. Further, Congress should make clear that judges in federal bankruptcy cases have the power to require parties to mediate mortgage issues, just as they currently order alternative dispute resolution (such as negotiation or mediation) for other issues. Together, these two provisions would impact the large majority of mortgages under threat of foreclosure and create new means to stabilize the housing market.