The power of eminent domain has traditionally worked against homeowners, who can be forced to sell their property to make way for a new highway or shopping mall. But now the working-class city of Richmond, Calif., hopes to use the same legal tool to help people stay right where they are.
Scarcely touched by the nation’s housing recovery and tired of waiting for federal help, Richmond is about to become the first city in the nation to try eminent domain as a way to stop foreclosures.
The banks have warned that such a move will bring down a hail of lawsuits and all but halt mortgage lending in any city with the temerity to try it.
But local officials, frustrated at the lack of large-scale relief from the Obama administration, relatively free of the influence that Wall Street wields in Washington, and faced with fraying neighborhoods and a depleted middle class, are beginning to shrug off those threats.
“We’re not willing to back down on this,” said Gayle McLaughlin, the former schoolteacher who is serving her second term as Richmond’s mayor. “They can put forward as much pressure as they would like but I’m very committed to this program and I’m very committed to the well-being of our neighborhoods.”
Despite rising home prices in many parts of the country, including California, roughly half of all homeowners with mortgages in Richmond are underwater, meaning they owe more — in some cases three or four times as much more — than their home is currently worth. On Monday, the city sent a round of letters to the owners and servicers of the loans, offering to buy 626 underwater loans.