Fla. gov. approves $200 million bank settlement

Fla. Gov. Scott approves $200 million bank settlement; Allows lawmakers to divert housing cash

Associated Press

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) -- Florida is finally ready to start parceling out tens of millions of dollars it reaped as part of a $25 billion settlement between the nation's major banks and 49 states over foreclosure abuses.

Gov. Rick Scott on Tuesday signed into law a measure that uses $200 million earned from the settlement and directs it into everything from domestic violence shelters to affordable housing programs and Habitat for Humanity.

This is from money that was paid directly to the state — as opposed to money that is also going to homeowners as part of the settlement with five lenders.

Checks to homeowners are supposed to start coming in the next few weeks as well. Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi said that more than 72,000 homeowners who lost their homes to foreclosure between January 2008 and December 2011 will receive roughly $1,480.

The first checks are due to be mailed on June 10.

"This is a long time coming and we are very proud of this settlement," Bondi said shortly before Scott signed the bill.

The national settlement ended investigations into foreclosure abuses and was with the country's five largest mortgage servicers: Ally/GMAC, Bank of America Corp., Citi, JPMorgan Chase & Co., and Wells Fargo & Co.

The Tuesday bill signing caps a tumultuous period for Bondi, whose handling of the fallout from the foreclosure crisis has come under a barrage of criticism over the last two years. Bondi, for example, was skeptical back in 2011 of reaching any settlement with banks that would force them to lower the amount owned by homeowners. Her office was criticized for dismissing two attorneys who were leading foreclosure fraud investigations.

Bondi did finally sign off on the national settlement reached last year, but then quietly tussled for months with legislators over who would control some $334 million going directly to state government. Legislators insisted that they should have some say in how the money was spent.

The final agreement resulted in the money being broken up in two main parts. Back in January a legislative budget panel signed off spending $60 million that went to counseling with homeowners dealing with foreclosure and money to help first-time homebuyers with down payment assistance.

The bill signed Thursday by Scott spends the money that was left.

There's cash for several programs run by the Florida Housing Finance Corp. and some of it is targeted for rental payment assistance to the elderly and grants to provide housing for the homeless.

The measure also calls for spending money on housing for citizens with developmental disabilities as well as rehabilitating homes in blighted neighborhoods. Other parts give money to Habitat for Humanity and purchase dormitory contracts for low-income students planning on attending college.

The large amounts of money coming from the settlement gave legislators a chance to set aside money for affordable housing while passing a state budget that diverted money that normally goes to some of the same programs.

Back in January, House Speaker Will Weatherford said there was "no intention do a bait and switch" and use the settlement money in place of existing state funding. The amount of money diverted from housing trust funds was $205 million.

"We are not going to be spending this money, you know, on members' favorite projects that have nothing to do with the crisis," Weatherford said at the time. "The idea is to focus the resources on the people with the greatest need."

A spokesman for Weatherford defended the final budget decision.

Ryan Duffy pointed out that legislators have diverted much of the trust fund money — which comes from a tax charged on real estate transactions — the last five years. Duffy said that the amount spent on affordable housing programs was much larger this year due to the settlement.

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