Critics said the financial services industry wouldn't lift a finger in response to Ohio's mortgage foreclosure crisis.
They were wrong.
Two major trade groups lifted four fingers last week — and thumbed their nose at Gov. Ted Strickland's emergency plan to rescue tens of thousands of Ohioans at risk of losing their homes.
The governor has used his bully pulpit during the last year to bring people together and figure out how to respond to this steadily unfolding disaster. Most specifically, he convened a foreclosure prevention task force and gave industry representatives a prominent place at the table.
He also asked the 20 firms that control the largest numbers of Ohio mortgages at risk of foreclosure to enter into a special "compact," to mobilize throughout the state, identify homeowners in danger of losing their homes, and modify loan terms on a mass scale — to make monthly payments affordable and prevent foreclosures.
He requested that the firms follow specific practices when making new deals. He urged them to be publicly accountable for making progress — through monthly reports to the Ohio Department of Commerce.
But the mortgage firms have balked. They had their trade groups act as errand boys, recently delivering a letter to the governor that makes plain they are not interested in being part of a process they can't control.
Mr. Strickland should push back hard. He will need help forcing this arrogant industry's hand — especially from Republican lawmakers who ignored warnings and enabled the lending practices that now plague the state.
An editorial appearing on this page earlier this year noted that taxpayers will be forced to clean up the wreckage that's occurring because of the massive number of foreclosures nationally. It suggested that Congress impose a special tax on every sector of the financial services market to create a fund to help homeowners and communities.
Gov. Strickland should consider such a levy on the state level. He can honestly say it's not a tax, but restitution.
The costs of Ohio's foreclosure epidemic have been staggering. Foreclosure filings have jumped 395 percent from 1995 to 2006, up 24 percent just between 2005 and 2006 — with Montgomery County, year after year, at or near the top of the list.
The Congressional Joint Economic Committee estimates that Ohio can expect another 82,000 home foreclosures between now and the end of 2009 — with an economic impact of more than $3.7 billion, measured in terms of the loss in value of foreclosed homes and neighboring properties, and the decrease in property tax revenues.
These estimates don't include the terrible social costs to communities when families are displaced or living at the edge of bankruptcy.
In the 1970s when the threat of toxic waste dumps was coming into focus, Congress didn't let polluters walk away. It passed the "Superfund" legislation, which imposed a tax on some manufacturers and allowed the government to come back on businesses that had helped create the environmental hazard. Though today that program has fallen far short of what it set out to do, it did send the message that responsible parties should worry about the government — one day — catching up with them.
Ohio has become mortgage lenders' "Love Canal." Reckless industry practices have ruined lives and laid waste to entire sectors of Ohio cities. And there's more damage ahead unless borrowers are given help.
The governor's plan is sound and practical. Ohio lawmakers should make participation mandatory. An unrepentant industry must be forced to clean up — and pay up for — the catastrophe it caused.
20 firms were invited to join compact
Gov. Ted Strickland invited these subprime mortgage servicers to join the Compact to Help Ohioans Preserve Homeownership:
Ameriquest Mortgage (AMC)
Home Loan Services (National City)
Litton Loan Servicing
Option One Mortgage
Wells Fargo Mortgage
Washington Mutual FSB
Saxon Mortgage (subsidiary of Morgan Stanley)
Wilshire Credit Corp. (subsidiary of Merrill Lynch)
HomEq Mortgage Servicing (subsidiary of Barclays Capital)
Select Portfolio Servicing (subsidiary of Credit Suisse)
EMC Mortgage (subsidiary of Bear Stearns)
Ellington Capital Management
Carrington Capital Mgmt./Carrington Mortgage Services