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Gov. Schwarzenegger signs housing bills during Merced visit

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger briefly visited Merced on Monday, stopping to highlight a package of new laws related to the home foreclosure crisis and meet campus leaders at UC Merced.

During an hour-long morning press conference at City Hall, the governor discussed eight newly signed bills that he said will protect consumers and small businesses, help struggling homeowners and stem mortgage-related fraud and abusive lending practices.

"Merced County, just the other day, ranked fourth in the foreclosure crisis in the United States," said Schwarzenegger, flanked by several state legislators and city and county leaders. "We know that the foreclosure crisis continues across California and the country. This is not going to solve all the problems, but it will help."

The new laws include provisions that will make it illegal for loan modification firms to collect up-front fees; establish standardized licensing requirements for mortgage lenders; enact new consumer protections related to reverse mortgages; make it a felony to commit fraud in connection with a home loan application; require mortgage documents be made available in several languages besides English; and mandate that buyers of foreclosed homes be allowed to choose which title and escrow companies they hire.

"What we're doing today with these bills is saying that never again will a crisis of this magnitude hit the Central Valley or California, for us and for future generations," said Assemblyman Ted Lieu, D-Torrance, who authored one of the bills. "We're sending the message to Wall Street that California will no longer be the Wild West of uncontrolled predatory lending practices."

There are now more delinquent homeowners in Merced than ever before, according a recent report by ForeclosureRadar, a Bay Area firm that tracks foreclosure activity across the state.

Assemblywoman Cathleen Galgiani, D-Stockton, who wrote the bill that mandates homebuyers be allowed to choose local title and escrow companies, said the new law will help both homebuyers and businesses in Merced. "This bill was truly born in our community," she said.

Schwarzenegger made a brief stop after the press conference at UC Merced, his second visit to the campus since it opened in 2005. He met for about 20 minutes with Chancellor Steve Kang before leaving the city around noon, UC Merced spokeswoman Brenda Ortiz said.

Besides inquiring about the university's progress and growth, Ortiz said, the governor used his time at the campus to express his sadness over the death of UC Merced's founding chancellor, Carol Tomlinson-Keasey, who lost her battle with breast cancer earlier this month.

The governor's staff contacted the city late Friday to begin making arrangements for Monday's visit, city spokesman Mike Conway said.

Besides state legislators and city and county officials, dozens of people showed up for the morning press conference hoping to get a glimpse of celebrity.

"You don't see movie stars in Merced too often," doted Atwater resident Judith Wilson, who snapped photos throughout Schwarzenegger's speech. "When I read that he was coming, I just had to be here."

Reporter Corinne Reilly can be reached at (209)385-2477 or creilly@mercedsun-star.com.

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