U.S. Mortgage Industry Needs to be Monitored - Fresno Bee

Steve and Valvina found their dream home in Fresno's Fig Garden district in 2006. But at more than $250,000, it seemed out of reach.

They had bad credit, two teens to raise. And Steve's income from the assembly line, and Valvina's as an office assistant, only went so far.

Then a friend sent a mortgage broker their way, who pushed them into two loans, totaling $250,000, with only $1,000 down and an adjustable interest rate.

This broker didn't have their best interest at heart. Valvina says she had questions, but the broker insisted everything was OK.

They signed the papers, and the broker pocketed $10,000. Soon, they were overwhelmed by loan payments, property tax bills they thought were factored into their loan and repairs they couldn't afford.

"I had to make a decision -- pay the mortgage or feed my children," Valvina said. Today, they're in foreclosure, behind on their payments by $13,000 and fighting to keep their home.

Unfortunately, stories like theirs are common in California, Florida and many other states across America.

We believe the time has come for Congress to do something about it, to ensure that the bad actors in the mortgage industry are no longer allowed to operate freely.

To be sure, most mortgage loan brokers and lenders are ethical professionals. But clearly, some are not.
No national standards

Part of the problem is that today, there are no national standards for mortgage brokers and lenders. Instead, there is only a thin patchwork of regulation by the states.

This has allowed unscrupulous brokers to take advantage of borrowers. And it has contributed to the subprime mortgage crisis that has driven so many Americans into foreclosure, threatening our national economy.

We believe Congress should require that all residential mortgage loan brokers and lenders obtain a state license. This would include providing fingerprints and a summary of work experience and consenting to a
background check by authorities.

To be licensed, these brokers and lenders must:

  • Have no felony convictions.
  • Have had no similar license revoked.
  • Demonstrate a record of financial responsibility.
  • Pass a written exam after taking courses in federal lending laws, ethics, consumer protection and subprime mortgage lending.

And brokers and lenders who become licensed should be listed on a database that's easily accessible to the public. This will allow consumers to verify whether or not brokers or lenders they're thinking of working with have the proper credentials and are licensed.

To be sure, these actions will not by themselves solve America's subprime mortgage crisis. But they would play a vital role in addressing it.

We believe it's just as important to look to the future, to take steps to ensure that this never happens again.

Cleaning up the mortgage business will do just that.

If the subprime mortgage crisis has taught us anything, it is this: American home buyers are vulnerable to unscrupulous brokers and lenders.

The price is too high, and our states, California and Florida, have been especially hard hit:

Last year, more than 2.2 million foreclosures were filed in the United States -- a jump of 75% over 2006.

Lenders repossessed 84,375 homes in California last year, a nearly seven-fold increase over the 12,672 homes repossessed in the Golden State in 2006.

Nearly 500,000 adjustable-rate mortgages in California will reset in the next two years. Even though interest rates have fallen, many of these families are struggling -- and any increase in their interest rates may push them over the edge.

"It is no secret that we are facing a tsunami of distressed homeowners with adjustable-rate loans," said Hernan Vera of Los Angeles-based Public Counsel, the world's largest pro bono public-interest law firm.

"Unless more is done to protect these homeowners, the current mortgage crisis and devastating rise in
foreclosures will only get worse."

The handwriting is on the wall.

So it is time for Congress to act. We must restore faith in the dream of home ownership -- for Steve and Valvina and millions of other hard-working American families -- so this never happens again.

Dianne Feinstein is a Democrat who represents California in the U.S. Senate. Mel Martinez is a Republican who represents Florida in the U.S. Senate.