More From Robert Hockett on Using Eminent Domain to Solve the Underwater Mortgage Debt Problem

Robert C. Hockett of Cornell has written Paying Paul and Robbing No One: An Eminent Domain Solution for Underwater Mortgage Debt that Can Benefit Literally Everyone. Here's the abstract:

This essay provides updated argumentation for and abbreviated specification of the municipal eminent domain plan for underwater mortgage loans that the author lays out in his earlier piece titled It Takes a Village. The nation's ungoing foreclosure crisis and economy-stifling mortgage debt deflation will not be arrested and reversed, the paper argues, until mortgage debt principal is written-down to post-bust home equity levels. Once that is done, however, literally everyone can benefit – from homeowners and bondholders to neighbors, communities, and local and regional economies.

Unfortunately, a host of classic collective action problems presently stand in the way of the 'win-win' solution here. Such problems require collective agents for their resolution, which is what private label securitization (PLS) trustees and even loan servicers are. But the pooling and servicing agreements (PSAs) pursuant to which many PLS trusts are formed, hurriedly drafted as they were during the bubble years when many pushed product and few apparently anticipated system-wide housing price crash, prohibit or effectively prevent even value-raising modifications or sales of sufficient numbers of underwater mortgage loans. This means that government alone – the sole entity able to sidestep dysfunctional contract rigidities, by use of the eminent domain authority – can serve as the requisite collective agent.

In theory, the essay continues, our federal government, through any number of instrumentalities, could play the appointed role. But political paralysis in Congress shows that it now faces collective action hurdles of its own. All that is left, then, is state and local government. But the latter, it happens, is happily best situated in any event to exercise the eminent domain authority to take underwater loans at fair value and modify them to benefit homeowners, bondholders, and third parties alike. For the nation's underwater mortgage loan problem is heavily localized in character, and municipalities in any event face the brunt of foreclosure-induced homelessness, tax base decline, and consequent blight wrought by ongoing defaults wrought by negative home equity – the makings of 'public use,' per our constitutional limits on eminent domain use, par excellence.

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