When the council first voted on eminent domain, in April, members were unanimously in favor. But then the opposition campaign began. Ms. McLaughlin predicted that her motion that September night would pass with five of seven council votes, but it squeaked by with just four. Jeffrey Wright, a real estate broker who is leading the local opposition, was satisfied.
"This underwater mortgage bailout program," he said later, "is on life support."
The day after the vote, Ms. McLaughlin was in her office, working on an entirely different project: getting ready for a trip to Ecuador, at the invitation of that country's president, to tour the damage that courts there have ruled was caused by oil drilling by Texaco, now owned by Chevron.
It is Chevron, not mortgage debt relief, that has defined much of Ms. McLaughlin's tenure. The company, which has a large refinery in Richmond, is the city's largest taxpayer and employer, and Ms. McLaughlin has led the fight — first as an activist, and then as mayor — to force Chevron to pay higher taxes and to pay more damages after a refinery explosion last year sent thousands of area residents to emergency rooms.
A longtime advocate of left-wing causes, Ms. McLaughlin, a Green Party member, is part of a Richmond political alliance that has vowed not to accept corporate campaign donations. In 2010, she was re-elected over a Chevron-backed challenger. She helped ease policies that criminalized homelessness and harried illegal immigrants, and brought a solar panel factory and a branch of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory to town.
But Richmond was staggered by the recession. Homes in the city lost 66 percent of their value, on average, and are still worth less than half what they were at their peak, in January 2006. Some 16 percent of homeowners lost their homes in foreclosure, leaving so many scars on neighborhoods that the city began fining banks $1,000 a day if they failed to maintain their property; the city has collected $1.5 million so far.
Richmond held sessions where homeowners could meet with bank representatives and legal aid groups, but too often, the mayor says, the efforts came to naught. Last summer, underwater homeowners owed, on average, 45 percent more than the value of their homes, according to the city manager.
So the mayor was all ears when she heard about the eminent domain plan, from both Mortgage Resolution Partners, a company that hopes to make money by administering and financing the plan for many cities, and from her longtime ally, the Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment, an offshoot of Acorn.
The A.C.C.E. thought an earlier attempt to use eminent domain, in San Bernardino County, had failed because of a lack of grass-roots support. So in Richmond it held a door-knocking campaign. Its success was seen when more than 100 people, most in favor, signed up to speak at the September meeting. It lasted seven hours.
Using eminent domain to heal the wounds of the mortgage crisis has been called crazy, unconstitutional and even "one of the worst ideas ever." But it is not so far removed from mainstream thinking. In 2008, Senator John McCain of Arizona, then the Republican presidential candidate, suggested using $300 billion in federal bailout money to buy troubled mortgages and write them down.
The problem was that the mortgages had been bundled into pools and resold to thousands of investors all over the world. The rules governing many of the pools forbade the investors' representative, known as the trustee, from selling off mortgages or modifying them unless they were already in default, even though it might be in the investors' interest to do so.
Scholars suggested that eminent domain could give trustees the legal cover they needed to get rid of the bad loans. So far, though, the investors have not seen it that way. In Richmond, investors (including BlackRock and Pimco) asked their trustees, Wells Fargo and Deutsche Bank, to sue the city to stop the program.
Eminent domain allows governments to condemn property for a public purpose, like building a road or eliminating urban decay, and applies to intangible property like mortgages as well as to real estate. Richmond argues that its public purpose is to prevent foreclosures and the blight of vacant properties. The idea is to buy those mortgages out of the bundles and restructure them, restoring equity to the homeowners and keep them from defaulting.
Opponents of the plan argue in legal briefs that the risk of default now, so long after the crash, is vastly overstated. More than half of the 624 homeowners initially identified for the program are current on their payments. Not only that, 91 of the loans have already received a modification that included debt forgiveness — though many early modifications were unsustainable. Then there is the question of whether homeowners who got cash by refinancing their homes during the bubble — taking out new, riskier mortgages, as many of these did — deserve help now. (Ms. McLaughlin says the homeowners fell prey to unscrupulous lenders.) Lastly, opponents calculate that with rising home values, almost a third of the homeowners aren't even underwater, a figure that Mortgage Resolution Partners disputes.