Planned Use of Eminent Domain Powers to Condemn Underwater Mortgages Faces Uncertain Constitutional Outcome
By Matthew Hinks
Amidst reports of rising home prices throughout California and fears of a new housing bubble, controversial plans floated by California cities to deal with the lingering effects of the mortgage meltdown by invoking their powers of eminent domain are gaining traction. The City of Richmond in Northern California has begun implementing the plan by sending letters to hundreds of holders of underwater mortgages -- mortgages on homes that are now worth less than the mortgage amount -- offering to purchase the loans at a discount. If the mortgage holders refuse, Richmond's mayor has indicated that the city will move to seize the loans pursuant to its eminent domain powers.
The idea came to national prominence last year when the County of San Bernardino combined with the cities of Ontario and Fontana to form a Joint Powers Authority to publicly examine proposals to assist homeowners within their jurisdictions who are underwater on their mortgages. The JPA publicly flirted with the use of eminent domain to seize underwater mortgages only to abandon the idea after opposition surfaced.
The Los Angeles Times reports that the City of El Monte is considering adopting a similar plan. Other cities across the country and throughout California, including La Puente, near El Monte, and Orange Cove and San Joaquin in Fresno County, are reportedly doing the same.