At its midwinter meeting last week, the U.S. Conference of Mayors called on Congress to reform the Federal Housing Administration so it will give more help to troubled borrowers, and to increase funding to help borrowers and neighborhoods hard-hit by soaring mortgage foreclosures.

At the local level, county and city governments and homeowner advocates are launching their own fightback.

In California, one of the Ground Zeroes of the nationwide crisis, over 84,000 houses and condominiums were repossessed last year, more than six times the number in 2006 — over 31,000 of them during the last three months of the year, San Diego-area research company DataQuick Information Systems said last week.

DataQuick also said more than 81,000 homeowners received default notices — the first step toward foreclosure — in the fourth quarter of the year. People receiving default notices in 2007 were far less likely to end up keeping their homes than homeowners in similar plights a year ago, the company said.

In the Los Angeles area, Riverside, Orange and San Bernardino counties have seen default notices more than double compared to 2006.

In the San Francisco Bay Area, Contra Costa County has been hit hardest, with over 4,000 foreclosures last year. Alameda and Solano counties weren’t far behind.

On Jan. 15 the Contra Costa County Board of Supervisors unanimously passed a resolution calling on subprime lenders to voluntarily agree to a six-month moratorium on foreclosures.

Supervisor John Gioia, one of the measure’s sponsors, said in a telephone interview that while the resolution is nonbinding, supervisors “will push lenders to cooperate.” He added, “If the federal government won’t lead on an issue, sometimes local governments can.”

The West [Contra Costa] County Mayors and Supervisors Association backs the resolution, and the Contra Costa Mayors Conference is expected to approve it Feb. 7. The city councils of Richmond and other nearby communities are likely to follow suit.

Gioia said a county resource fair on March 1 will raise the visibility of the issue “so homeowners can get information and help.” Meanwhile, the district attorney’s office is writing to every homeowner with a default notice, warning against scams and suggesting sources of free legal advice.

Among hardest-hit county residents are African Americans, Latinos — especially immigrants entering the real estate market for the first time — and seniors with paid-off mortgages who were encouraged to take new or reverse mortgages, the supervisor said.

Gioia said federal and state “truth in lending” legislation is urgently needed to make sure terms are fully disclosed and consumers really understand them.

“It was clear home prices were artificially, unsustainably high,” he said. The excesses of the system, and people’s expectations that the boom would continue, helped fuel the crisis, he said. “Now, how can we help people to stay in their homes, or to gracefully get out of their situations?”

Charles Jackson, national spokesperson for ACORN (Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now), which helped develop the Contra Costa County resolution and a similar measure in Minneapolis, said the call for a foreclosure moratorium is part of a national campaign.

“We hope that through these resolutions, lenders will realize elected officials are concerned, and will take a close look at their practices to reform them to benefit both lenders and borrowers,” Jackson told the World. “Everyone is at risk, and everyone will gain if mortgage companies help buyers work out payment plans,” he said. “All we are asking is a breather so they can work out new payment plans.”

The California Legislature is considering several bills to ease the crisis, including measures by Senate President Pro Tem Don Perata (D-Oakland) and Assemblyman Alberto Torrico (D-San Leandro) to require lenders to notify borrowers months before mortgage rates are to reset, and to meet face-to-face with borrowers to work out solutions before putting mortgages into default.

At its meeting last week, the U.S. Conference of Mayors also called for consumer education, counseling and protections, and better reporting on loan modifications and restructuring.

mbechtel @pww.org

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