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NYC to buy distressed mortgages to help revive communities

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio speaks

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio speaks on Tuesday, June 28, 2016. Photo Credit: AP / Julie Jacobson

New York City is taking a novel approach to addressing enduring pockets of the home foreclosure crisis by buying long-unpaid mortgages, with plans to help owners stay in their homes if possible or use the properties as affordable housing if not, officials say.

It’s among the first cities to pursue buying such loans directly from the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development, officials say. Housing advocates and some lawmakers have pressed HUD to make it easier for cities and nonprofit groups, as opposed to investors, to buy troubled mortgages.

New York is announcing the $13 million program Thursday. Details of the program were provided to The Associated Press ahead of a planned afternoon announcement.

So far, the program involves just 24 properties, containing a total of 41 homes and apartments. Officials say the cost includes millions in reserve for repairs that may not be required, and they cast the program as an experiment they hope to expand.

“It puts government squarely on the side of struggling families, so they can keep their homes,” Democratic Mayor Bill de Blasio said in a statement.

The national wave of foreclosures that accompanied the 2008 mortgage meltdown peaked several years ago, but some neighborhoods still have concentrations of homes in trouble, city officials say. Nearly 34,000 residential and commercial properties citywide were in some stage of the foreclosure process or were bank-owned as of last month, according to statistics provided to The Associated Press by RealtyTrac, a real estate data firm.

The borrowers in the city’s new “Community Restoration Program” are years behind in paying federally-insured mortgages they took out from banks as far back as 2002.

The city wouldn’t identify the properties or owners, who don’t yet know they’re in the program. The city was able to do some research but hasn’t yet been legally allowed to contact the homeowners, officials said.

Soon, nonprofit groups will try to talk with the borrowers to see whether changing loan terms could enable them to pay. If not, options could include giving up ownership in exchange for being able to stay as renters or being moved to affordable housing elsewhere.

If the homes have absentee owners, the city may face a laborious process of foreclosing on them in order to resell or rent the homes at affordable rates to be determined.

The money is coming from the City Council, a loan from investment bank Goldman Sachs, and settlements various banks have made with state Attorney General Eric Schneiderman over lending practices.

Schneiderman, a Democrat, said in a statement the program is keeping delinquent mortgages from being auctioned to entities “whose goal is to profit off other people’s losses.”

Nationwide, HUD has sold about 100,000 soured mortgages at discounts in the last several years, often to private equity firms and hedge funds.

Housing advocates complain the firms have been too eager to foreclose on borrowers; the firms counter that many of the homes are abandoned. HUD has said the sales can give borrowers a last chance to save their homes, but the agency also has made some changes. Among them: extending a foreclosure moratorium from six months to a year after a sale, and offering some mortgages in smaller batches, since nonprofits often can’t afford bigger chunks.

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