NEWARK, N.J. - The American Civil Liberties Union has sued the Federal Housing Finance Agency, asking it to disclose efforts to stop municipalities from using eminent domain to bail out underwater homeowners and make its dealings with the financial industry more transparent.
The ACLU, Center for Popular Democracy and other nonprofits filed a freedom of information lawsuit against the agency Thursday in federal court in San Francisco.
Richmond, Calif., was the first city to officially codify the divisive foreclosure fighting plan, which has drawn zealous opposition from Wall Street and Washington. Two lawsuits challenging the use of eminent domain have been thrown out, but will likely be refiled. The city has not yet used eminent domain to seize a mortgage.
Irvington, N.J., is moving forward with the strategy, and the city council in Newark took its first steps toward moving forward with a plan Wednesday. Yonkers, N.Y., is considering it, but other places have scrapped the idea because of opposition from banks or legal hurdles.
The agency said in August it may initiate legal challenges against municipalities that want to use eminent domain to fight foreclosures and could direct regulated entities to stop doing business in those places. The nonprofits said most of the cities exploring the use of eminent domain have been besieged by foreclosures and have predominantly low-income, minority populations.
The nonprofits filed freedom of information requests with the agency in October, seeking communication between agency leadership and representatives of the banking, mortgage and financial industry, and records of meetings between the agency and financiers, among other requests.
FHFA acknowledged, but did not complete, the requests, according to the lawsuit, so the groups sued. The nonprofits are asking for the documents to be procured on an expedited basis.
"The FHFA has taken an aggressive stance on this issue in a way that has harmed minority communities. The public deserves to know why," said Linda Lye, a staff attorney with the ACLU of Northern California, in a statement.
A FHFA spokeswoman said the agency is not commenting on the lawsuit.
By using eminent domain, municipalities can circumvent mortgage contracts, acquire loans from bondholders, write them down and give them back to the bondholders with reduced principals. According to Cornell University law professor Robert C. Hockett, who devised the plan, only government has the power to forcibly sidestep mortgage contracts.
The tactic only works with so-called private label security mortgages, or ones that are not backed by the federal government.