Published Wednesday, Sept. 4, 2013 | 7:04 p.m.
Updated Wednesday, Sept. 4, 2013 | 10:10 p.m.
The North Las Vegas City Council has rejected a controversial proposal to use eminent domain to help refinance underwater mortgages and instead will wait for the state to weigh in on the legality of the plan.
The council’s unanimous decision at its Wednesday night meeting comes as a significant blow to the hopes of Mortgage Resolution Partners, which has lobbied city decision makers for more than six months to implement a plan it says can help underwater homeowners reduce their principal owed and stabilize the North Las Vegas housing market.
Mayor John Lee said the city doesn’t have the resources to fully vet MRP’s proposal and instead will look to the state for guidance on whether the plan is sound.
“I’d like to see the bigger questions answered so local governments can make decisions based on state law,” Lee said. “Without guidance from the attorney general, everything we might do would be based on what we figured the court system might (allow).”
Lee said several legislators expressed interest in studying the proposal further, something he thinks will benefit the entire state.
“If MRP did pass here they would seek another customer and another customer until eventually, this is a Nevada issue,” he said.
Even if the city had wanted to move forward with MRP, Lee said there isn’t enough money or manpower in the budget to establish and administer the program, a situation that could change in the future.
MRP’s plan, which targets a specific subset of underwater loans held in private label security-backed trusts, would have used private dollars to help homeowners refinance their mortgages and reduce the principal owed, staving off costly foreclosures that can wreak havoc on neighborhoods.
Executing the plan would have required the city to lend its power of eminent domain to facilitate the acquisition, a proposition that raised legal questions and sparked fierce protest from bankers, financial institutes and real estate professionals.
For every successful refinancing, MRP would have received a $4,500 fee and its investors who lent the city the initial capital would receive a return.
The proposal won tentative approval in June when the council voted to enter into an advisory agreement with MRP, allowing the company to begin surveying the local housing market.
North Las Vegas was the sixth and largest city to partner with MRP when it approved the advisory agreement in June, joining California cities Richmond, La Puente, El Monte, San Joaquin and Orange Cove.
Two initial supporters of that plan, former mayor Shari Buck and Robert Eliason, are no longer on the council, replaced by Lee and Isaac Barron, who both opposed the proposal Wednesday night.
In the months since that June approval, federal lawsuits have been filed to stop the plan from being implemented in California and Nevada while the federal housing officials have warned municipalities against using eminent domain to restructure mortgages.
Lee said he was worried about potential litigation against the city, even though MRP had promised to cover any legal costs.
Councilwomen Anita Wood and Pamela Goynes Brown both supported MRP in June, but changed their tune Wednesday night.
“Someone came in with an idea and it was different. But I think it’s always the council’s responsibility to look at a new idea to see if it has merit,” Wood said. “There are still a lot of issues right now going on that have not been resolved and I think they need to be resolved in California and at the federal level before the city of North Las Vegas gets involved with this.”
After the unanimous vote to terminate the city’s agreement with MRP, Byron Georgiou, a Las Vegas attorney and one of the company’s Nevada representatives, said he was disappointed in the outcome and felt the city council did a “disservice” to its constituents.
Georgiou argued that the approximately 4,000 distressed homeowners targeted through MRP’s plan aren’t being helped enough by existing federal and state programs and that each month of delay means more foreclosures.
"Those people, sadly, are very likely to be foreclosed upon in the next year or two as they fall further and further behind,” he said.
Georgiou said his group, which includes developer Michael Saltman and Daniel Greenspun, a member of the family that owns the Las Vegas Sun, will work with state officials to eventually bring back its proposal.
Although MRP’s lawyers maintain the program is legal under state law, Georgiou said the Nevada Supreme Court could wind up making the ultimate decision.
“We’ll be back,” he said.