WASHINGTON - Democrats introduced three bills Wednesday to crack down on predatory lenders, but Republicans remain reluctant.
Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes and Rep. John J. LaFalce, the ranking Democrats on their respective Banking Committees, introduced companion bills that would toughen and broaden existing regulation of high-cost loans under federal law. Sen. Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., introduced a separate, more restrictive bill.
The Sarbanes-LaFalce legislation would extend federal protections to more borrowers by lowering the standards for what constitutes a high-cost loan, expanding the list of lending practices that are abusive, and increasing penalties.
Added disclosure requirements and other restrictions would be imposed on mortgages that have annual interest rates exceeding the yield on Treasury securities by six percentage points, which roughly equals a 12% annual percentage rate, or mortgages with total fees and points that exceed 5% of the loan amount.
"The problem of so-called predatory lending has reached near epidemic proportions in recent years, depriving millions of American households of the equity in their homes," Rep. LaFalce said at a news conference. Many of these borrowers are saddled with high interest rates, heavy fees and prepayment penalties, and frequent refinancings, he said.
Sen. Sarbanes agreed, but assured mainstream lenders that the law would not hamper ethical activities.
"We must stop the American dream of home ownership from being distorted into a nightmare by these unscrupulous practices," the Maryland Democrat said, but "we appreciate there is a subprime market that can be useful in terms of making credit available to people with impaired credit standing. & We want to insure that all borrowers, whether in the prime or subprime market, are treated fairly and responsibly."
The legislation faces an uphill climb due to Republican hesitancy and typical election-year gridlock.
House Banking Committee Chairman Jim Leach plans to hold a hearing in the next few months, but a spokesman said the Iowa Republican has not yet decided whether the solution is stricter enforcement of current law, new laws, or a combination of both. Banking regulators who belong to an interagency task force on the issue will be asked testify and make recommendations.
Senate Banking Committee Chairman Phil Gramm, however, has not agreed to hold a hearing, his spokeswoman said. "We need a definition of what the problem is and the scope of the problem," she said. Sen. Gramm agrees with Rep. Leach that existing laws may be sufficient.
Simply broaching the issue has forced some market changes, Sen. Sarbanes said, noting that Fannie Mae earlier this week unveiled guidelines for subprime loans it will purchase. The government-sponsored enterprise, for example, will not buy loans that involve excessive fees, prepayment penalties, or other unethical practices.
Industry reaction to the legislation was mixed.
The National Home Equity Mortgage Association blasted the Sarbanes-LaFalce bill as "unworkable" for consumers and lenders, saying it would severely choke credit. The group has developed industry guidelines, and the vast majority of its members act responsibly, according to executive director Jeffrey Zeltzer. "While we work to end the abuses of a tiny minority, we must not make it more difficult - and expensive - for millions of Americans to obtain home equity loans," he said in a statement.
But Sen. Sarbanes and Rep. LaFalce said they drew heavily from a bill enacted last fall in North Carolina that received wide industry support.
"Everybody is pleased with the legislation [here]," said Edmund D. Aycock, senior vice president and regulatory counsel of the North Carolina Bankers Association. "It has some thresholds in it that are above the market rate for both interest and fees that are charged on a home loan that permit legitimate, regulated lenders - banks and thrifts - to engage in their normal commerce while at the same time restricting predatory lenders."
Turning up the pressure for action, the Department of Housing and Urban Development on Wednesday released a study showing an explosion of subprime home loans in black and low-income neighborhoods.
In an analysis of almost 1 million mortgages, HUD found that the number of refinanced subprime loans increased 10-fold from 1993 to 1998. The dollar volume increased seven-fold, from $20 billion to $150 billion, over the same period.
HUD said subprime loans are five times more likely in black neighborhoods than in white neighborhoods, accounting for 51% of home loans in predominantly black neighborhoods in 1998 compared with 9% in white areas. In 1993, about 8% of the loans in black neighborhoods and 1% in white neighborhoods were subprime.
In addition, HUD reported that 6% of homeowners in upper-income white neighborhoods have subprime loans, while 39% of their counterparts in high-income black areas have subprime loans.
HUD Secretary Andrew Cuomo and Gary Gensler, the Treasury under secretary for domestic finance, said that a recently formed joint task force on predatory lending met Wednesday and will hold hearings in Baltimore, Chicago, Los Angeles, and New York over the next seven weeks. Findings will be presented in a report by the end of May that will include recommendations for legislation to outlaw predatory lending.
Mr. Gensler welcomed the bill introduced Wednesday and urged quick action, but administration officials stopped short of endorsements.
"Sen. Schumer's, Sen. Sarbanes', and Rep. LaFalce's bills are all good steps in the right direction," Mr. Cuomo said, "but we want to conclude the [predatory loan task force's] seven-week process and then come up with what we believe the final legislative package should look like."
Under the Sarbanes-LaFalce bill, lenders making high-cost loans would have to comply with tougher standards for assessing borrowers' ability to pay, face tighter limits on prepayment penalties and fees, and be barred from using balloon payments among other restrictions.
These lenders would also be required to comply with tougher standards for assessing borrowers' ability to pay, make more consumer protection disclosures warning of the loans' riskiness, and face other restrictions on their activities.
The bill would bar these lenders from collecting up-front or financing credit insurance, using balloon payments, and demanding payment in full at any time. Financing of fees would be limited to 3% of the loan, and would be reduced by the amount of prepayment penalties. Likewise, prepayment penalties are limited to 3% of the loan but would have to be reduced by the amount of fee financing.
The bill would also toughen enforcement provisions. Borrowers would be allowed to cancel illegal loans. Maximum civil penalties would be increased to $10,000 from $2,000 in individual cases and, for class actions, to the greater of $10,000 per member of the class or 2% of the creditor's worth.
Sen. Schumer introduced a tougher bill that would ban prepayment penalties and the financing of points and fees. Its definition of high-cost loans would include those that have total points and fees in excess of 4% of the loan amount.
Michele Heller contributed to this article.
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