Needy states use housing aid cash to plug budgets

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Courtesy of The New York Times

Hundreds of millions of dollars meant to provide a little relief to the nation’s struggling homeowners is being diverted to plug state budget gaps.

In a budget proposed this week, California joined more than a dozen states that want to help close gaping shortfalls using money paid by the nation’s biggest banks and earmarked for foreclosure prevention, investigations of financial fraud and blunting the ill effects of the housing crisis. California was awarded more than $400 million from the banks, and Gov. Jerry Brown has proposed using the bulk of that sum to pay the state’s debts.

The money was part of a national settlement valued at $25 billion and negotiated with five big banks over abuses in their mortgage and foreclosure processes.

The settlement, reached in February after a year of talks and intervention by the Obama administration, was the second-largest in history involving the states, trailing the tobacco industry settlement, and represented the first large-scale commitment by banks to provide direct aid to borrowers.

As part of the settlement, the banks agreed to pay the states $2.5 billion, money intended to help homeowners and mitigate the effects of the foreclosure surge. But critics complained that this was the only cash the banks were required to pay — the rest comes in the form of “credits” for reducing mortgage debt and other activities. Even that relatively small amount has proved too great a temptation for lawmakers.

Only 27 states have devoted all their funds from the banks to housing programs, according to a report by Enterprise Community Partners, a national affordable housing group. So far about 15 states have said they will use all or most of the money for other purposes.

In Texas, $125 million went straight to the general fund. Missouri will use its $40 million to soften cuts to higher education. Indiana is spending more than half its allotment to pay energy bills for low-income families, while Virginia will use most of its $67 million to help revenue-starved local governments.

Like California, some other states with outsize problems from the housing bust are spending the money for something other than homeowner relief. Georgia, where home prices are still falling, will use its $99 million to lure companies to the state.

“The governor has decided to use the discretionary money for economic development,” said a spokesman for Nathan Deal, Georgia’s governor, a Republican. “He believes that the best way to prevent foreclosures amongst honest homeowners who have experienced hard times is to create jobs here in our state.”

Andy Schneggenburger, the executive director of the Atlanta Housing Association of Neighborhood-Based Developers, said the decision showed “a real lack of comprehension of the depths of the foreclosure problem.”

The $2.5 billion was intended to be under the control of the state attorneys general, who negotiated the settlement with the five banks — Bank of America, Wells Fargo, JPMorgan Chase, Citigroup and Ally. But there is enough wiggle room in the agreement, as well as in separate terms agreed to by each state, to give legislatures and governors wide latitude. The money can, for example, be counted as a “civil penalty” won by the state, and some leaders have argued that states are entitled to the money because the housing crash decimated tax collections.

Shaun Donovan, the federal housing secretary, has been privately urging state officials to spend the money as intended. “Other uses fail to capitalize on the opportunities presented by the settlement to bring real, concerted relief to homeowners and the communities in which they live,” he said Tuesday.

Some attorneys general have complied quietly with requests to repurpose the money, while others have protested. Lisa Madigan, the Democratic attorney general of Illinois, said she would oppose any effort to divert the funds. Tom Horne, the Republican attorney general of Arizona, said he disagreed with the state’s move to take about half its $97 million, which officials initially said was needed for prisons.

But Mr. Horne said he would not oppose the shift because the governor and the Legislature had authority over budgetary matters. The Arizona Center for Law in the Public Interest has said it will sue to stop Mr. Horne from transferring the money.

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