Bank: Baltimore's tax lein process increased foreclosures

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BALTIMORE (AP) - A mortgage bank being sued by Baltimore is alleging that the city's practice of selling houses with tax liens for unpaid water bills or other municipal fees is responsible for a recent increase in foreclosures, not the bank's practices.

The city sued Wells Fargo Bank N.A. in January alleging that the bank engaged in a pattern of predatory lending practices in Baltimore's poorest neighborhoods leading to a foreclosure rate in minority communities almost twice the city's average. The city sought to recover some of the cost of keeping up neighborhoods hurt most by foreclosures.

The bank sought to dismiss the suit in March by alleging that the city's tax lien program takes "foreclosure actions" against more homeowners than the bank, about 19,000 from 2000 to last year. Lawyers argued in their March filing that the city's complaint "alleges - in conclusory and illogical fashion - that it was at least 313 foreclosures over seven years by Wells Fargo that caused the city 'tens of millions of dollars' in damages."

The city's annual tax lien sale is not "voluntary," The 19,000 figure includes all people who entered the tax lien process, not those who lost their homes because of unpaid bills, said City Solicitor George A. Nilson. He also notes that the city's annual tax lien sale is not "voluntary."

City attorneys argue in a memorandum filed in U.S. District Court this week that the dismissal motion should be denied and that the bank's conclusion that City Hall is responsible is false.

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"Defendants would have the court believe that Baltimore has intentionally 'unleashed' on its residents a program of tax lien sales that causes thousands of foreclosures for nothing more than a small unpaid water bill and the like," city attorneys said in opposing the bank's request. "Maryland law mandates that Baltimore conduct these sales."

More than 33,000 homes in Baltimore have been subjected to foreclosure filings since 2000, and Wells Fargo has more foreclosures than any other lender, the city's lawsuit said.

Wells Fargo, one of the two largest mortgage providers in the city since 2004, made 1,285 loans a year totaling more than $600 million from 2004 through 2006. The bank had 135 foreclosures in Baltimore in 2005 and 2006 - more than any other lender, according to the lawsuit. And it had at least 70 foreclosures in the first half of 2007.

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. The information contained in the AP news report may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or otherwise distributed without the prior written authority of The Associated Press. Active hyperlinks have been inserted by AOL.

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