On December 9, FHA announced new maximum loan limits for forward mortgages for 2016 in 188 counties due to changes in housing prices. The new loan limits for forward mortgages are effective for case numbers assigned on or after January 1, 2016 through the end of the year. FHA noted that no areas saw a decrease in the maximum loan limits for forward mortgages and that, as detailed in Mortgagee Letter 2015-30, the national standard loan limits for low cost and high cost areas remain unchanged at $271,050 and $625,500, respectively.
On February 1, HUD announced a $1.9 million settlement with a Memphis-based bank to resolve alleged violations of the Fair Housing Act. Specifically, the complainant alleged that the bank “was responsible for discriminatory terms and conditions for making loans, discrimination in the making of loans, and discriminatory financing, with respect to real estate transactions.” In addition, the complainant alleged that the bank engaged in discriminatory practices by failing to place bank branches in minority-concentrated areas, ultimately denying African-American and Hispanic applicants mortgage loans. The bank denied the allegations, but agreed to “voluntarily settle [the] controversy and resolve [the] matter without the necessity of an evidentiary hearing or other judicial process . . . .” Under the agreement, the bank will (i) establish a subsidy fund of $1.5 million over three years to provide interest rate reductions on home mortgages, along with down payment or closing cost assistance to qualified borrowers in identified regional areas; (ii) contribute $270,000 over the course of three years to support governmental or community-based organizations’ efforts to help homeowners repair properties in predominantly minority communities, or to provide credit, financial, homeownership, or foreclosure-prevention services to homeowners in affected areas; (iii) pay directly to the complainant $105,000 to fund similar home repair, credit, financial, homeownership, and foreclosure services; and (iv) pay directly to the complainant $25,000 in damages.
On December 2, a Tennessee mortgage company agreed to pay the United States $70 million to resolve allegations that it violated the False Claims Act. According to the DOJ, the company, acting as a direct endorsement lender, knowingly originated and accepted FHA-insured mortgage loans that did not meet applicable HUD underwriting and quality control requirements. As part of the settlement agreement, the company admitted to engaging in the following conduct between January 1, 2006 and March 31, 2012: (i) employing unqualified junior underwriters to complete important underwriting tasks; (ii) setting high quotas for underwriters and disciplining them if the quotas were not met; and (iii) offering underwriters bonuses based in part on the number of loan files reviewed as incentive to increase loan production. Even though deficiencies in the loan underwriting process were identified in post-close audits, the company did not make any self-reports until 2009 and, even then, “[v]ery few of these self-reported loans were reported for containing serious underwriting deficiencies.” As a result of the company’s conduct, the FHA insured loans that were not eligible, purportedly suffering “substantial losses when it later paid insurance claims on those loans.”
On October 21, HUD announced a proposed rule that would formalize the standards for evaluating harassment claims in housing or housing-related transactions under the FHA. The rule – “Quid Pro Quo and Hostile Environment Harassment and Liability for Discriminatory Housing Practices under the Fair Housing Act” – would define “quid pro quo harassment” and “hostile environment harassment,” respectively, as (i) subjecting a person to an unwelcome request or demand because of the person’s protected characteristic and submission to the request or demand is, explicitly or implicitly, made a condition related to the person’s housing; and (ii) subjecting a person to unwelcome conduct that is sufficiently severe or pervasive such that it interferes with or deprives the person the right to use and enjoy the housing or to exercise other rights protected by the FHA. In addition, the proposed rule also would describe standards for “direct liability” and “vicarious liability”, which would apply to all violations under the Act, not solely harassment. In particular, the proposed rule would define “direct liability” to include (i) a person’s own conduct; (ii) failure to take prompt action with respect to a discriminatory housing practice by an employee or action; and (iii) failing to fulfill a duty to take prompt action to correct and end a discriminatory housing practice by a third-party, where the person knew or should have known of the discriminatory conduct. The proposal was published in the Federal Register on October 21, and comments are due by December 21, 2015.
On October 16, HUD’s FHA published a notice of partial withdrawal of its July 6 proposed rule to limit the time frame in which FHA-approved lenders must file insurance claims for benefits. The July 6 proposal would have required mortgagees to file claims (i) within three months from when marketable title to the property was obtained; or (ii) when the property was sold to a third party. In addition, the proposal sought to terminate the FHA’s insurance contract as a penalty for missing the proposed filing deadlines. Based on feedback that HUD received through its notice and comment process, HUD withdrew the proposed provisions to limit the FHA insurance claim period and its proposed amendment to the penalty provisions.
On October 7, HUD announced a September 24 Charge of Discrimination against a group of Colorado landlords for allegedly “steering” families with children to apartments located at the rear end of the apartment building, an alleged violation of the FHA. According to HUD, from September 2013 to February 2014, Complainant DMFHC, a Colorado non-profit organization dedicated to promoting equal housing opportunities throughout the Denver, Colorado area, conducted various tests to show that respondents discriminated against families with children by making units in the front of the apartment building unavailable to them. HUD alleges that, “Respondents violated the Act by restricting the housing choices of families with children and perpetuating segregated housing patterns within the Subject Property by assigning families with children to the rear building.” The charge, which assesses a $16,000 civil money penalty fee for each violation of the FHA, will be heard by a United States Administrative Law Judge, unless a party elects to have the case heard in federal district court.
On September 28, HUD, the FDIC, and the U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of New York filed suit against a non-profit housing counseling corporation and certain mortgage lenders for allegedly running a scheme to defraud the United States and various banks out of over $5,000,000 in false claims. Filed in the Eastern District of New York, the complaint alleges that, in order to remain in HUD’s Direct Endorsement Program, a federal program that insures mortgage loans through the FHA, the mortgage lenders sought to fraudulently conceal the high default rates of their loans by funneling money through the corporation to pay their borrowers’ payments, in direct violation of FHA regulations. The mortgage lenders would then sell the federally-insured loans to FDIC-insured banks. Once either a bank’s indemnification or repurchase rights, or the period during which HUD monitored loans for early payment defaults, lapsed, the mortgage lenders would stop making payments, resulting in the ultimate default of the borrowers. The complaint seeks treble damages under the FCA, the FIRREA, and under common law theories of gross negligence, breach of fiduciary trust, and unjust enrichment.
On September 4, the DOJ announced a settlement of more than $29 million with a Florida-based mortgage banking firm in connection with violations of the False Claims Act. The firm’s subsidiaries participated in HUD’s Home Equity Conversion Mortgages (HECM) program, which insures reverse mortgage loans by reimbursing lenders that are unable to recoup the full amount of a reverse mortgage loan once the loan becomes due and payable. HUD will reimburse sales commissions paid to real estate agents in connection with the liquidation of foreclosed properties, but will not reimburse fees paid to real estate agents for referrals of loans to be liquidated. According to the DOJ, from July 2010 to October 2014, the firm used straw companies to split commissions with real estate agents, and then later submitted claims to HUD for reimbursement of the full commission amount. Additionally, from August 2009 to March 2015, the firm encouraged its subsidiaries to submit false debenture interest claims to HUD. Specifically, the subsidiaries neglected to disclose that they had failed to meet certain required regulatory deadlines and were therefore not entitled to interest payments. The DOJ stated that the settlement “represents a significant milestone in [the DOJ’s] long standing campaign against mortgage fraud.”
On September 2, U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch delivered remarks at HUD’s Fair Housing Policy Conference. In her remarks, Lynch stressed the importance of fair housing as being a primary driver “to access to employment, to education, to credit, to transportation, to safety and to a whole range of institutions and opportunities.” Lynch stated that she is “more determined than ever to vigorously enforce the Fair Housing Act (FHA).” Among other things, Lynch provided an overview on how the DOJ is implementing new programs, technology, and research to conduct electronic testing, allowing the DOJ to expand the reach of its Fair Housing Testing Program. The Attorney General also expressed her support of HUD’s recently issued “Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing” rule, and signaled that the DOJ intends to “vigorously enforce” the FHA using every available tool, including the disparate impact theory, which the Supreme Court ruled recently as a valid enforcement tool to challenge unfair mortgage lending practices.
On July 13, HUD announced guidance regarding discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identity, and marital status. The guidance on Multifamily Assisted and Insured Housing Programs was intended to clarify the 2012 Equal Access to Housing in HUD Programs Regardless of Sexual Orientation or Gender Identity Rule (“Equal Access Rule”). HUD clarified that, in addition to individual program eligibility requirements established by HUD, a determination of eligibility for housing that is assisted by HUD or subject to a mortgage insured by the FHA “will be made available without regard to actual or perceived sexual orientation, gender identity, or marital status.” The guidance also clarifies that owners, administrators, and other recipients and sub-recipients of HUD funds associated with HUD-assisted housing or housing whose financing is insured by HUD may not inquire about the sexual orientation or gender identity of an applicant for, or occupant of, such housing, and notes that the rule is applicable whether such housing is renter or owner occupied. HUD noted that future Management and Occupancy Reviews may include a review for compliance with the Equal Access Rule. The guidance was coordinated with the July 13 White House Conference on Aging, with the White House emphasizing that the Equal Access Rule also applies to Section 202 Supportive Housing for the Elderly.
On July 8, HUD issued a final rule aimed at helping communities who receive HUD funding meet their fair housing obligations to provide affordable housing in more communities. The rule equips grantees with various new data and tools to better analyze the state of fair housing within their communities, and assist grantees in setting locally-determined benchmarks. The rule also requires new reports from local communities detailing how HUD funds will be allocated, and provides a phase-in period for grantees to adapt to the new requirements. In conjunction with the issuance of the final rule, HUD also released an Executive Summary, a fact sheet, and FAQs to provide greater clarity and support to grantees.
On July 6, HUD’s Federal Housing Administration (FHA) proposed a rule to establish a maximum time period for FHA-approved lenders to file insurance claims for benefits following the foreclosure of FHA-insured mortgages. Currently, HUD does not require mortgagees to file claims by a certain time, but the proposed rule will require lenders to file insurance claims (i) three months from when they obtain marketable title to the property; or (ii) when the property is sold to a third party. Since the housing market collapse, which dramatically increased mortgage defaults, mortgagees have chosen to forgo promptly filing insurance claims with the FHA, instead opting to wait and file multiple claims at once. This uncertainty of when claims will be filed, along with the high number filed at the same time, has strained FHA resources and negatively impacted its ability to project the future state of the Mutual Mortgage Insurance Fund (MMIF), which it is statutorily obligated to safeguard. In addition to the deadline, the proposed rule would ban from insurance payouts certain expenses incurred by mortgagees that are the result of their failure to timely fulfill the requirements necessary to submit an insurance claim (such as promptly initiating foreclosure). Comments on the proposed rule are due September 4, 2015.
On June 1, a regional bank agreed to pay the United States $212.5 million to resolve allegations that it knowingly violated the False Claims Act by originating and underwriting FHA-insured mortgage loans that did not meet applicable requirements. The bank – through its subsidiary and as a Direct Endorsement Lender in the FHA insurance program – had the authority to approve mortgage loans for FHA insurance without having FHA or HUD review the loan application first. The DOJ Civil Division’s investigation concluded that, from January 2006 through October 2008, the bank, even though it was aware of material deficiencies in its loan origination process, “failed to report even a single deficient mortgage to FHA.” DOJ further concluded that, while the bank profited from its loan process, taxpayers suffered significant losses when the loans defaulted and FHA incurred “substantial losses when it later paid insurance claims on these loans.” The bank admitted to failing to comply with FHA origination, underwriting, and quality control regulations.
On May 26, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development announced that it entered into a conciliation agreement with a Wisconsin-based bank to resolve claims that, from 2008 to 2010, the bank discriminated on the basis of race and national origin by denying loans to qualified African-American and Hispanic applicants, and making few loans in majority-minority census tracts in five metropolitan areas in Illinois, Minnesota, and Wisconsin (while making loans in nearby predominantly white tracts). Among other things, the agreement requires the bank, over a three-year period, to: (i) pay nearly $10 million in the form of lower interest rate home mortgages and down payment/closing cost assistance to qualified borrowers in majority-minority census tracts in specified housing markets in Illinois, Minnesota, and Wisconsin, (ii) invest nearly $200 million in increased mortgage lending in majority-minority census tracts in these areas, (iii) provide nearly $3 million to help existing homeowners repair their properties in these predominantly minority communities, (iv) pay $1.4 million to support affirmative marketing of loans in these census tracts, and (v) open offices in certain specified majority-minority census tract areas. According to HUD, this is the largest redlining settlement that it has initiated.
On May 26, the DOJ announced a lawsuit against the city of Beaumont, Texas (Beaumont) for allegedly violating the Fair Housing Act (FHA) and the Americans with Disabilities Act. According to the DOJ’s complaint, Beaumont’s Zoning Code imposes a one-half mile spacing restriction on small community homes for persons with intellectual or developmental disabilities; this means that no such community home may operate within one-half mile of another such community home. The DOJ alleges that Beaumont’s Zoning Code does not similarly restrict the spacing of housing for persons without disabilities. In addition, the DOJ asserts that Beaumont imposes on community homes for persons with disabilities excessive fire safety requirements that are not imposed on similarly situated housing for persons without disabilities. According to the DOJ, Beaumont’s policies have “compelled the closure of several community homes” and prohibited “new community homes from opening or operating in most of Beaumont’s residential neighborhoods,” forcing residents with disabilities to move to institutional settings or out of Beaumont. The lawsuit, which arose after complaints were filed with HUD, requests that the Court enter an Order under which Beaumont, among other things, would be (i) enjoined from enforcing the one-half mile spacing rule or fire safety requirements that apply only to community homes of persons with disabilities, (ii) required to restore (to the extent practical) the alleged victims to the position they would have been in but for the alleged violations, and (iii) required to pay monetary damages.