Fine in Florida

Thomas H. Meyer, the chief executive of J.I. Kislak Mortgage, has a sunnier outlook on the housing market in Florida than most.

His lender, a Miami Lakes unit of the J.I. Kislak Inc. real estate company, is expanding to keep up with business there. It will be opening offices in southern Dade County and Jacksonville in early October. "We're trying to be prudent about it and grow at a pace that we can accommodate," he said. Eventually, the unit plans to expand throughout the Southeast.

Most mortgage bankers are busy with refinancings spurred by record-low rates. But "in Florida, as opposed to the rest of the nation, there is little refinance activity," Meyer said. "The reason being is that so many of the houses are underwater. What's really supporting the mortgage business in Florida is purchase business. People are bargain hunting."

Meyer also sees growing interest from community banks to set up mortgage operations. On Tuesday, Atlantic Bank and Trust of Charleston, S.C., announced that it had hired Kislak to provide back-end mortgage services. The bank's staff will take the applications and then work with Kislak to approve and close the loans.

"We've got more interest [from community banks] than we can turn around in the time frame that we'd like to," Meyer said. "Community banks are in a good position to grow in the mortgage business … because of their local knowledge, because of the backlash against big banks. And they've got some licensing advantages over independent mortgage bankers."

WFC 2, Baltimore 0

Baltimore has suffered another setback in its case against Wells Fargo & Co. in which it argues that the bank's lending practices led to foreclosures that have hurt the city.

A U.S. district judge dismissed the suit a second time on Tuesday, questioning whether the properties could have become vacant in any event or if the borrowers defaulted on the loans specifically as a result of the Wells Fargo mortgages that were made. The judge left open the possibility that Baltimore could re-file by Oct. 22 after conducting further research.

Jeff Taft, a partner at the law firm Mayer Brown LLP in Washington, said the ruling diminishes the chances for similar cases against other banks. "Everybody thought at one point that there might be a lot of these lawsuits," he said. "But the lack of success by those who have brought the lawsuits and the difficulties in making a strong legal case has likely prevented others from bringing similar lawsuits."

Other cities have tried their hand at pinning the blame on banks for their economic troubles. In 2008, Cleveland filed a public nuisance lawsuit against several of the nation's biggest banks for creating blight. Birmingham, Ala., like Baltimore, filed a suit claiming banks caused a foreclosure epidemic by violating the Fair Housing Act. Both cases were dismissed last year. Cleveland later appealed the ruling, but was unsuccessful.

Judge J. Frederick Motz of Maryland first dismissed the Baltimore case in January, saying the city's troubles were more likely a result of "extensive unemployment, lack of educational opportunity and choice, irresponsible parenting, disrespect for the law, widespread drug use and violence."

The judge allowed the city to file a narrower complaint alleging the San Francisco bank was responsible for more specific foreclosure-related costs.

But Motz found fault in the amended complaint as well.

"He has basically said 'you did what I asked you to do the last time … but you need to review the facts and determine whether you can make appropriate factual allegations on this new point,'" said George Nilson, Baltimore's city solicitor.

Upon review, if it's determined that the facts support the city's claims, Baltimore plans to re-file the suit, Nilson said.

"We're not just filing suit because there's a foreclosure problem and a subprime problem out there," he said. "We filed suit against Wells Fargo specifically based on their numbers and information we have about their behavior."

Cara Heiden, co-president of Wells Fargo Home Mortgage, said in a press release Tuesday: "We have contended from the beginning that the challenges Baltimore faces cannot be attributed to the small number of loans Wells Fargo foreclosed in the city."

Subscribe Now

Access to authoritative analysis and perspective and our data-driven report series.

14-Day Free Trial

No credit card required. Complete access to articles, breaking news and industry data.