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AG seeks statewide mortgage protections
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SACRAMENTO (AP) — State Attorney General Kamala Harris promoted legislation Wednesday to reform the mortgage process in California and provide more protections for homeowners, three weeks after she secured $18 billion for California in a nationwide bank settlement.

The six-bill package would write the terms of the settlement into state law, make them permanent and apply them to every lender, not just the five banks that were party to the nationwide agreement.

"What we are doing is taking the best of that settlement, bringing it to California, but doing it in a way that will have lasting impact and will be on our books and change the course so that this does not happen again," Harris said.

More than 500,000 Californians have lost their homes to foreclosure since 2008, more than in any other state.

The so-called California Homeowner Bill of Rights would prohibit some of the most egregious practices that contributed to the housing crisis. That includes banks signing off on foreclosures without properly reviewing the documentation, a process known as robo-signing.

It also would prohibit a practice known as a "dual-track foreclosure" by requiring lenders to first attempt to work with borrowers on foreclosure alternatives before filing a notice of default.

The legislation also would let Harris convene a special grand jury to investigate financial and foreclosure crimes that span the state.

Harris' increased ability to defend homeowners would be paid for with a $25 fee on each notice of default filed by a lender. Prosecutors would have four years to bring charges in foreclosure-related crimes, up from the current one year.

The bills would give renters more notice before they have to vacate a foreclosed home and give cities more tools to fight neighborhood blight from vacant houses. Lenders would have to provide borrowers with a single point of contact if they need to discuss foreclosures or refinancing, without getting passed around to different departments.

Wednesday's announcement comes days after Harris called for a halt to foreclosures throughout California.

Last week, she asked the Federal Housing Finance Agency, which oversees loans backed by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, to suspend foreclosures and consider reducing mortgages for at-risk homeowners.

The two federal programs own or guarantee more than 60 percent of California mortgages but are not subject to the $25 billion settlement announced in February between more than 40 states and the nation's top mortgage lenders.

Harris was joined at the Capitol news conference by Democratic lawmakers, including Assembly Speaker John Perez, of Los Angeles, and Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, of Sacramento.

Similar efforts to reform the mortgage industry have been introduced repeatedly, only to be watered down or die in the Legislature. Harris and Steinberg said they expect opposition from the banking industry as well as many Republican and some moderate Democratic lawmakers.

The national settlement makes it more likely the bills will pass this year, Steinberg said.

Previously, "we did not have the template of a national settlement that addresses each and every one of these issues. That's the difference," Steinberg said. "If it's the right resolution for some homeowners in distress, it ought to be right for all homeowners in distress."

The California Bankers Association said it has previously worked with lawmakers to pass more than four-dozen mortgage-related bills. It warned in a statement that the proposed state legislation must mesh with what is being done at the federal level.

Dustin Hobbs, spokesman for the California Mortgage Bankers Association, said his organization was still reviewing the proposed legislation.

"California's lending community remains committed to both helping homeowners and protecting affordable access to mortgage credit," his association said in a statement. "It is critical that any new legislation take into account our state's fragile economic condition. Any introduction of new legislation and regulation must include a realization that markets and consumers need stability in order for lasting economic recovery to take hold."

The announcement came as about 50 members of the Occupy movement and foreclosure groups chanted and waved signs outside the state Capitol, demanding an immediate halt to foreclosures. A group calling itself Bay Area Moratorium planned to ask Harris to seek to vacate every current foreclosure action and bar local sheriffs from enforcing the foreclosures, using the argument that the foreclosures were based on fraud.

"It's not a real settlement, it's hush money to get you through the next election," said Kevin Carter of Sacramento, one of the demonstration leaders. He used a bullhorn to lead the protesters in chants of, "Banks got bailed out, we got sold out."

Steinberg and Harris said the problem has resonated not only with individual homeowners, but across the state and national economies.

"If there was ever a meat-and-potatoes, middle-class issue, if there ever was a crisis putting innocent, hardworking people into dire circumstances, this is it," Steinberg said.