Richmond, California is now moving forward with a proposal to use eminent domain to acquire more than 600 “underwater mortgages” (mortgages with unpaid balances greater their properties’ market value).
Eminent domain has long been used by governments for various public uses, such as highways, roads, and public utilities. More recently this has been extended to include shopping malls, business parks, and professional sports stadiums. However, while contemplated by other cities, eminent domain has never been used for the purpose of seizing mortgages. Richmond would be the first city to actually carry out such a plan.
On its face, the plan is straightforward. The city has offered to buy these underwater mortgages at discounted rates from the banks and investors currently holding these mortgages. If the offers are rejected, the city will use eminent domain to force the sale of these mortgages to the city. The city will then write down the debt, refinancing the loans for amounts much more in line with current home values.
While the stated objective of this plan is to provide mortgage relief to homeowners hurt by the most recent housing crises, the plan is rife with opportunities for political privilege and favoritism. Ilya Somin, a law professor at the George Mason University School of Law, has laid out several problems involved with this scheme:
- Far from benefiting low-income people as intended, the plan will actually harm them. Much of the money to condemn the mortgages and pay litigation expenses will come from taxpayers, including the poor. Most of the poor are renters, not homeowners, so they cannot benefit from this program. But renters do indirectly pay property taxes through the property taxes paid by their landlords, a cost which is built into their rent.
- The program would also enrich those who took dangerous risks at the expense of the prudent. It isn’t good policy to force more prudent taxpayers to subsidize the behavior of people who took the risk of purchasing high-priced real estate in the midst of a bubble. Doing so will predictably encourage dubious risk-taking in the future.
- Prudent Richmonders will also lose out from this policy in another way. If lenders believe that the city is likely to condemn mortgages whenever real estate prices fall significantly, they will either be unwilling to lend to future home purchasers in Richmond, or only do so at higher interest rates. That will hurt the local economy and make it more difficult for Richmonders to buy homes.
- We should also remember that eminent domain that transfers property to private parties is often used to benefit the politically powerful at the expense of the poor and the weak. In Kelo v. City New London (2005), a closely divided Supreme Court ruled that government could take private property and transfer it to influential business interests in order to promote “economic development.” As a result, multiple New London residents lost their homes for a “development” project that still hasn’t built anything on their former property eight years later. Property owners lost their rights and the public has yet to see much benefit. The Richmond policy would create another precedent to help legitimate future Kelos.
You can read Somin’s article here.
It should be noted that there is a legal challenge underway as banks and investors argue that the city’s plan is unconstitutional. However, regardless of the plan’s legality, it is clear that it will do little to support economic development, aid the housing market, or support future investment in the local economy. It seems more about using these mortgages to privilege the few at the expense of the many.