Puerto Rico hurricane survivors threatened by foreclosures

This 16 December 2017 video says about itself:

The Next Crisis for Puerto Rico: A Crush of Foreclosures

By David Dayen on The Intercept:

Puerto Rico Homeowners Brace for Another Disaster: Foreclosures

December 22 2017, 6:09 p.m.

Lenders to Puerto Rican homeowners have kicked foreclosures into high gear in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria, skirting local and federal borrower protections. According to attorneys and experts, lenders have ignored federal moratoria on foreclosures; placed notices of default in newspapers where they’re unlikely to be seen; sent files to homeowners in English rather than Spanish; and required residents to complete tasks that are borderline impossible without electrical power yet fully restored, among other abuses.

The foreclosure horrors add to Puerto Rico’s Dickensian experience of late. Close to 35 percent of the island remains without power after Hurricane Maria, with full restoration not expected until May. At least 100,000 people have left the island. Abandoned pets are everywhere. Government services have been slashed or hobbled. Even one major proposed solution, wiping out Puerto Rico’s debt, will take a personal cost: The bonds represent the life savings of many residents to whom the financial products were aggressively marketed without explanation of the downsides.

Ultimately, the expected wave of foreclosures could prove worse than what happened in the most hard-hit areas in the U.S. mainland during the Great Recession. According to the New York Times, roughly one-third of 425,000 Puerto Rican homeowners have fallen behind on mortgage payments, and with jobs scarce after the hurricane, that number will likely grow. In fact, the economy of the island could collapse, as the Republican tax bill imposes a 20 percent tax on offshore exports — a category that includes Puerto Rican manufacturing.

But if you think America learned lessons from the orgy of illegality that accompanied foreclosures in the United States after 2008, just look to Puerto Rico. Despite new rules to prevent foreclosure fraud, Puerto Rico appears to be Exhibit A in its continuation — and it’s only just beginning.

Foreclosures ravaged Puerto Rico even before Maria, up 130 percent in 2016 relative to a decade before. Adding two hurricanes to the equation makes the island’s residents ripe for a gargantuan ripoff.

The foreclosure process in Puerto Rico resembles the judicial foreclosure process on the mainland. Lenders must follow federal guidelines on notifying borrowers of default and giving them an opportunity to cure debt. Then lenders can file a lawsuit for foreclosure. Judges are obligated to impose mandatory mediation, bringing borrowers and lenders to the table to work out a resolution. Only if that doesn’t work can lenders obtain a judgment and evict the homeowner.

However, what sound like substantive protections for the borrower often don’t play out that way. “Many times they don’t know about their rights,” said Veronica Rivera, a coordinator for Derecho a tu Casa or Right to Your House — a coalition of legal aid groups providing information and assistance to homeowners facing foreclosure. “They think that the bank would understand that they can’t pay because they lost their jobs. It surprises me sometimes how much trust people have in the banks.”

For example, after Hurricane Maria, the federal government imposed a foreclosure moratorium on homes either backed by government-sponsored mortgage giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, or those with Federal Housing Administration insurance. The FHA moratorium was recently extended to March 19, 2018, but it only applies to a sliver of loans. The Fannie and Freddie moratoria were set to expire on December 31, but the lenders this week made an extension until March 31. Banks and mortgage investors voluntarily offered three months of relief from payments, but homeowners had to call their lender to trigger it. “The banks said you have to call,” said Rivera. “We didn’t have internet for more than a month, didn’t have electricity, no communication. Many didn’t know.”

Indeed, a report from the public interest firm Hedge Clippers shows that one company, Roosevelt Cayman Asset Co., has 289 active foreclosure cases in federal court and another 56 in local Puerto Rican courts. Federal courts, typically not a venue for foreclosure cases, are seen as faster than local courts, so offshore companies like Roosevelt lean heavily on them.

Even after the hurricane, Roosevelt has filed motions for default judgment or eviction in the cases. The Intercept has reviewed lists of dozens of these motions. For example, Roosevelt filed a motion for eviction of Ernesto Santiago-Guzman and his family on October 11, three weeks after Maria hit, and a motion for default judgment against Elias Rivera-Rivera on October 12. U.S. District Judge Gustavo Gelpí denied that request because the case was only initiated a month before the hurricanes, “which trashed the entire island of Puerto Rico.” The judge postponed the case until March.

Other judges have not been so kind. Docket entries show that Roosevelt secured a default judgment against Carlos Gonzalez-Luna’s property on October 23.

Many of the loans Roosevelt acted on were purchased in a fire sale from the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation after the 2015 failure of Doral Bank, a lender with a large portfolio of Puerto Rican mortgages. These loans were severely delinquent, some over two years. Federally insured distressed mortgages in Puerto Rico have become an appetizing target for Wall Street land speculators seeking to make a quick buck and turn Puerto Rico into a playground for the rich.

An unidentified Puerto Rico homeowner submitted a comment to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau’s consumer complaint database, claiming that Roosevelt is “not flexible and expressed that they just want to acquire the home to build their house portfolio.”

Critics allege Roosevelt uses sleazy tactics to get default judgments. “Since the hurricane, they’ve sought to use service by publication, publishing names in the newspaper to serve the lawsuits. Who’s reading the newspaper these days?” asked Jim Baker, founder of the Private Equity Stakeholder Project, who helped with the Hedge Clippers report. “Then they ask for default judgment because they served papers and the homeowners haven’t responded. In most cases, they’re getting [the judgment],” he added, referring to Roosevelt.

Roosevelt is an affiliate of Rushmore Loan Management Services, which in turn services loans owned by private equity giant TPG Capital, managers of $73 billion in assets. While TPG spokesperson Patrick Clifford claims only a client relationship between Rushmore and TPG, Rushmore’s principal owners are senior TPG executives. A June 2017 report lists Rushmore as the second-largest repossessor on the island, behind only Banco Popular, Puerto Rico’s main bank.

(A new TPG “impact investing” fund includes on its board Pierre Omidyar, founder of First Look Media, The Intercept’s parent company.)

Activist groups held protests outside TPG headquarters in Manhattan on Wednesday, calling for an end to foreclosures on the island. Related demonstrations were held in eight cities around the world. “This is the first of many companies hurting the people of Puerto Rico and it will be one of many we will be scrutinizing,” said Julio López Varona, a spokesperson for Hedge Clippers, in a statement. “We have asked TPG and Rushmore directly to stop their foreclosures and we will continue to target them until they stop harming Puerto Ricans.”

This appears to have made an impact. Rushmore claims to have “instituted an immediate suspension of foreclosure proceedings in Puerto Rico,” per spokesperson Steven Goldberg, including stopping notice by publication.

Christmas after a hurricane: ‘We still must celebrate the holidays’. Residents in Puerto Rico, Houston and the Florida Keys talk about this year’s challenges – shelter, electricity and good cheer – to make the best of the holidays: here.


6 thoughts on “Puerto Rico hurricane survivors threatened by foreclosures

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