TAMPA --If you're one of the millions of Floridians whose homes are financially under water or you lost your home to foreclosure, Attorney General Pam Bondi wants to hear from you. Soon.
That's because she has money to compensate people victimized by the so-called "robosigning" scandal involving the country's five biggest banks. But you must apply by Feb. 15.
It's money that could buy down your mortgage principal or otherwise alter your loan. It's also money to compensate you if you lost your house because of fraudulent paperwork filed by banks guilty of robosigning.
That scandal involved banks setting up assembly line-style systems as the housing market collapsed so they could sign thousands of mortgage documents en masse. In some cases, signatures were forged. Often, lenders produced foreclosure documents without knowing the facts they contained, helping fuel the housing industry collapse.
Five major banks negotiated a settlement early last year with 49 states to compensate victims of robosigning. Florida got $8.4 billion, about a third of the $25 billion national fund created to on behalf of homeowners caught up in the housing implosion.
The bulk of the money – $7.6 billion – is aimed at homeowners who have kept up their payments but who still owe more than their homes are worth, a situation referred to as being "underwater." It can be used to buy down principal or otherwise modify mortgages to make them easier to pay off, but only for customers of the five major banks that signed the settlement: Ally/GMAC, Citi, Bank of America, JP Morgan Chase and Wells Fargo.
About $170 million has been set aside as cash payouts to people who lost their homes to foreclosure between January 2008 and December 2011 because of misbehavior by the banks.
Anyone eligible to file a claim should have gotten a written notice in the mail from their bank last year, Bondi said. They may also have gotten a phone call from the Attorney General's Office telling them they were eligible.
Bondi said her office estimates just over half the homeowners eligible for compensation have applied for it. She has been soliciting more applications in news conference across the state, including one in Tampa today with Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn and St. Petersburg Mayor Bill Foster.
"Do it today. Do it this weekend," she said. "But please do it soon so you won't miss the deadline."
Compensation to each foreclosure victim could amount to a few thousand dollars, Bondi said.
"This is money that is on the table," Foster said. "This is the tip of the iceberg."
Bondi's office has already begun distributing $60 million from a $334 million state fund to provide down-payment help, financial counseling and legal aid to put people back into foreclosed homes across the state.
At one point, Tampa may have had as many as 4,000 foreclosed homes, Buckhorn said.
He described those homes as a cancer on their communities. Left unchecked, they'll destabilize neighboring properties, he said.
The mayor began his own program aimed at fixing the problem of foreclosed and abandoned homes. His Nehemiah Project will demolish 51 derelict homes in the Sulphur Springs community over the next six months.
Buckhorn said he hopes that clearing those lots will inspire private developers to build new homes on the sites, to be sold to families wanting to put down roots in Tampa. That, in turn, could bring struggle neighborhoods back from the brink of ruin, he said.
"Those kids out there deserve the same quality of life as my kids on Davis Islands," Buckhorn said.
HOW TO APPLY
Attorney General Pam Bondi money to help Florida homeowners who are underwater on their mortgages or who lost their homes to foreclosure. Here's how to learn more.
By phone: National Mortgage Settlement hotline, (866) 430-8358
Applications will be accepted until Feb. 15.
BY THE NUMBERS
Florida's portion of the National Mortgage Settlement breaks down like this.