By Andy Metzger
STATE HOUSE NEWS SERVICE
STATE HOUSE -- Gov. Deval Patrick amended title-clearing legislation on his desk Monday, kicking back to the largely dormant Legislature a bill that people in the real estate industry say is necessary but which anti-foreclosure activists say tramples on the rights of people who lost homes in foreclosure.
The Massachusetts Alliance Against Predatory Lending early Tuesday said their allies in the House will ensure that the governor's amendment "will be protected or [the bill] will die." The alliance called the bill the "brainchild of the title insurance industry" and scheduled a "victory" press conference for Wednesday at 12:30 p.m.
Real estate lawyers and supporters of the bill (S 1987) in the Legislature say it would give a remedy to homebuyers who purchase a foreclosed property only to learn the title is in dispute, and who are therefore blocked from selling or refinancing their mortgage.
After the Senate passed its version of the bill in January, Senate President Therese Murray predicted noticeable impacts for buyers and said lawmakers were addressing an issue that "negatively impacts the real estate market as a whole." Attorney General Martha Coakley at the time called the Senate bill "an important next step in our efforts to support the housing market's continuing recovery" and applauded the bill's consumer protection measures.
Anti-foreclosure advocates say the bill would substantially reduce legal avenues for people to regain homes after illegal foreclosures and prevent predominantly people of color from returning to their homes.
"Families were improperly removed from their homes. Buyers who later purchased the property - or at least, believed they had done so - are now faced with title questions. Many of these buyers were investors, but many are now homeowners themselves," Patrick said in a letter on Monday to the House and Senate.
The bill creates a three-year deadline for title disputes before another document, known as an affidavit, becomes binding proof of a proper sale. Patrick's amendment would increase that window to 10 years.
"I commend the Legislature's effort to address these problems. But I believe the proposed three year period is insufficient. A family improperly removed from its home deserves greater protection, and a meaningful opportunity to claim the right to the land that it still holds," Patrick wrote. "The right need not be indefinite, but it should extend for longer than three years."
Action on the bill now shifts to the House, which will meet generally twice a week in lightly attended informal sessions through December, when any lawmaker can block legislation from advancing. In other words, Patrick's amendment, or a redrafted version of it, can only advance if all members in attendance agree to it.
While meeting in formal sessions over the first 19 months of the two-year session, the Democrat-controlled Legislature is often able to force its will on the governor. But because lawmakers waited until formal sessions were over for the 2013-2014 session to send the bill to Patrick, the threshold for acting on his amendment is higher.
Rep. Denise Provost, a Somerville Democrat, had drafted an amendment similar to the governor's, which was initially adopted by the House and later stripped by the Senate before both branches sent the bill to the governor in the final hours of the last formal session on July 31.
The New England Conference of the NAACP, attorney Charles Ogletree and others wrote to Patrick, urging him to veto or amend the legislation that they said would "codify, illegal racially discriminatory lending practices" that were disproportionately directed against ethnic minority communities.
"There is an even deeper, discriminatory influence in this legislation. Historically, when communities of color have exerted their rights and begun to win at a cause, the establishment responds by proposing system change that denies the communities (and similarly situated Whites) from exercising established, hundreds-year-old rights," the letter read. "In this way, Senate 1987 remains unfair even if the shortening of the time period to sue were uniformly broadened to three, four or six years regardless of the timing of a foreclosure."