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Frustration rises over mortgage relief program

Nearly two years after the federal government moved to slow home foreclosures, a third major effort is turning into another painful disappointment. By John W Schoen.
Image: Dan Binder
Dan Binder shuffles through his paperwork that has been compiling for more than a year as he has been renegotiating with his housing mortgage holder, Wells Fargo, for a better mortgage payment.Jeff Janowski / for

After months of dead ends, rejections and runarounds from bank representatives, Dan Binder is still in loan modification limbo.

When Binder lost his job as a media researcher, he and his wife left their southern California home in July 2008 and relocated to North Carolina where he found a new job in the media business.

Since then, he’s never missed a payment on the three-bedroom home in Riverside County, Calif., he said, though it's lost about half its value since he bought it in 2005 for $418,000. When his wife lost her job after the move, he called his lender, Wells Fargo, to see if the bank could rewrite the loan to lower the monthly payments.

Since then, he said, he’s gotten conflicting responses from multiple bank representatives, one of whom said he was days away from a new loan that was subsequently rejected.

At one point, after assurances that he submitted all the appropriate paperwork, he was told a form was missing. When he provided it, he was told the remaining paperwork was more than 30 days old and he would have to update and resubmit each document. At another point, he said, he was told his file showed a sizable credit card debt he didn’t owe.

After his latest rejection he asked for an explanation.

“They said the notes from the investors (holding the mortgage) said, ‘You spend too much on food,’ ” he said.

If all this sounds familiar, it's because homeowners around the country have been jumping through similar hoops with the same fruitless results.

Nearly two years after the federal government’s first program to slow the relentless rise in the pace of home foreclosures, the latest attempt, known as Making Home Affordable, is turning out to be another painful disappointment for millions of Americans at risk of losing their homes.

Dozens of e-mails from readers report months of futile effort to modify their loans.  The list of problems includes misdirected calls, lost paperwork and conflicting advice from multiple representatives for the same lender.

A Wells Fargo spokeswoman said the company can't comment on individual customer's loans due to privacy restrictions. But she said the company is "working with all of its customers who experience hardships and need assistance with their mortgage payments up the point of actual foreclosure sale.”

“As the government guidelines have changed and as we have gotten more options to help people, there has been some communication confusion that we are working to absolutely get on top of and correct for customers,” she said.

HUD-approved housing counselors — the frontline professionals trying to help borrowers modify mortgages — have expressed frustrations with a variety of roadblocks, bureaucratic snafus and ongoing confusion about the program.

“Even if (the homeowner) gets hold of somebody, that person might not necessarily understand the complexity of (the program),” said Helene Raynaud, an executive at the National Foundation for Credit Counseling, an umbrella group that certifies and sets standards for housing counselors. “Counselors end up talking to different people as well, which makes it very difficult. Depending on who they talk to, and the level of seniority and the level of training and the different servicers (they deal with), they get completely different outcomes."

Downward spiral
Despite recent signs of a bottom in the housing market, the pace of foreclosures shows no signs of slowing.

More than 13 percent of homeowners with a mortgage are either behind on their payments or in foreclosure, the Mortgage Bankers Association said Thursday. As of June, more than 4 percent of all borrowers were in foreclosure and about 9 percent had missed at least one payment. A separate report found that more than 272,000 borrowers were at some stage of foreclosure in July, up 8 percent from June and 55 percent from July 2007, according to RealtyTrac, which maintains a national database of foreclosure filings.

The continuing rise in foreclosures delays any meaningful recovery in the U.S. economy, in part because housing typically leads the economy out of recession. Although there have been recent signs of life in home construction and housing sales, they have been weak and from extremely depressed levels. Every new foreclosed home increases the unsold inventory on the market and cuts into demand for new construction.

Foreclosed homes sold in distressed sales or auctions also push nearby home prices lower. Unless the pace of foreclosures can be slowed or stopped, millions more homeowners who are current on their loans will be forced "under water" — owing more than their house is worth. Those homeowners become new candidates for default. One recent research report from Deutsche Bank estimates that roughly half of all U.S. homeowners will be under water by 2011.

Falling home prices also destroy billions of dollars of consumer wealth as homeowners watch their home equity evaporate. That loss of consumer spending power creates another major headwind to any economic recovery.

The collapse of home prices in high foreclosure neighborhoods also slows economic activity by forcing owners to make tough choices when they sell their house. Readers in high-foreclosure areas report that they're unable to relocate for a new job, buy a bigger house for an expanding family or downsize for a planned retirement because they can’t afford to sell their home at a loss.

When Carol Hardee’s daughter Laura died last year, she faced an uphill battle selling the daughter's Atlanta home, which was purchased in 2000 for $150,000. In February Hardee got an offer for $140,000. But with so many foreclosed properties in the neighborhood, the appraisal came back at just $75,000, and the deal fell through.

“There was a house just around the corner from her — it was like a three- or four- bedroom house — that sold for $25,000,” she said.

Hardee said she was unable to work out a loan modification with her lender, and the house eventually sold at a foreclosure auction for $100,000, which still left her with some equity to settle her daughter’s estate.

“I had no choice,” she said. “I had to sell the house. There were bills to pay with it.”

Frustration with mortgage relief efforts also has led desperate homeowners to fall victim to a variety of foreclosure "rescue" scams. Since April, the Federal Trade Commission has brought 14 cases over these schemes, while 23 state attorneys general and other agencies have taken action against 178 companies. Last year, reported incidents of all forms of mortgage fraud hit an all-time high — up 26 percent from 2007, according to the Mortgage Asset Research Institute.

Making Home Affordable is supposed to offer troubled borrowers two possible solutions. The Home Affordable Modification Program (HAMP) is designed to lower payments on existing loans by cutting the interest rate and stretching out the term. The Home Affordable Refinance Program (HARP) gives borrowers who are current on their payments but “under water” a chance to refinance into a new loan for the same amount, with lower payments.

The program pays incentives of several thousand dollars for each modified loan to mortgage servicers, which often are not the same as the lenders who hold the mortgage.

Lenders and servicers report their own frustrations with the MHA program, which was unveiled by the Obama administration in March with no advance notice to allow these companies to gear up and train workers. As recently as last month, key components of the program were still not in place, and some of the initial guidelines limit the program’s "potential to help homeowners," according to a July report from the the investigative arm of Congress. The report also found that "a number of HAMP programs remain largely undefined."

Though many servicers had already increased staff to work on troubled loans, they've been overwhelmed by the volume of applications for affordable loans.

“The number of calls coming in is staggering,” said a representative from one of the 10 largest servicers, who asked not to be identified because she was not authorized to speak publicly. “You’re talking about call after call after call after call after call of people in bad economic circumstances needing attention for their loan.”

Servicers say they also have been frustrated by the tepid response to their efforts to reach out to homeowners at risk of default. The servicer representative who asked not to be identified said her company sent out one round of 45,000 packages to homeowners believed to be at risk; only 15 percent of them responded.

Staffing is also an issue at the Treasury’s Homeownership Preservation Office, which was set up in November to address the sharp rise in foreclosures. As of mid-July, the office still had no permanent executive in charge, according to the GAO. Eleven positions had been filled with permanent employees and three with temporary workers borrowed from other agencies while  17 positions remained vacant, the GAO said.

The Making Home Affordable program was proposed by the Obama administration and enacted by Congress after two previous government-sponsored efforts, the Hope Now Alliance and the Hope for Homeowners program, failed to make a significant dent in the foreclosure rate. Hope Now, launched in October 2007, has modified several hundred thousand mortgages, although the “redefault” rate from this first round of modifications ran as high as 50 percent.

The Hope for Homeowners program, launched in July 2008, was expected to reach 400,000 distressed mortgage holders. At first the program was hampered by cumbersome terms and red tape, and only one homeowner got help. Terms were loosened in November without any meaningful impact. This month, the government announced it is rewriting the program again.

The unchecked rise in foreclosures also is destroying the value of assets backed by mortgages that are held by banks and private investors. So far, most investors have refused to take that loss upfront and reduce the loan amounts for homeowners who owe more than their house is worth. Though most major lenders and servicers have signed on to the MHA program, the decision to make a loan more affordable or forgive some of the principal amount is entirely voluntary.

“(Investors) have already suffered this loss: They’ve suffered it on paper,” said John Taylor, president of the National Community Reinvestment Coalition. “They’re waiting for this loss to begin to dissipate as the housing market recovers. What it’s doing, though, is continuing to exacerbate the foreclosure problems and drag down the economy.”

That deep recession has amplified the pace of foreclosures. When the mortgage market began melting down in late 2006, many of those in default were subprime borrowers and others who were sold adjustable loans that “reset” to unaffordable payments. Now, with 7 million jobs destroyed by the housing-led recession, lost paychecks have become a much thornier problem for groups working to slow the pace of foreclosures.

“The (MHA) program is still not fitted to people who have experienced a severe reduction in income,” said Raynaud of the National Foundation for Credit Counseling,  

That has cast doubt on just how many homeowners may ultimately get help. The White House has estimated that as many as 40 percent of the more than 10 million homeowners who are likely at risk of default and foreclosure could be helped. But the GAO, in its July report, found that estimate “problematic.” 

The servicer representative who asked not to be identified estimated that only 20 percent of the loans serviced by her company were good candidates for modification or refinance. Under current guidelines, borrowers must show they can devote 31 percent of their income to the new monthly mortgage payment. Some servicers say that’s too high, and have suggested to the Treasury that the threshold be lowered to 25 percent to qualify more homeowners.

For whatever reason, voluntary efforts to modify loans have proceeded at a snail's pace. As of the end of July, only 9 percent of an eligible 2.7 million borrowers had seen their mortgages modified under the new program, according to the latest Treasury data. Bank of America, for example, one of the largest holders of home mortgages, had modified only 4 percent of eligible borrowers as of last month. Some lenders had not modified a single loan.

That has raised question about the need for tougher measures to determine how aggressively servicers are working to modify loans.

“What was the lever to mandate and hold them accountable?” said Taylor. “I just don’t see that. It keeps returning to what is the fundamental flaw in (former Treasury Secretary Henry) Paulson’s plan and now in (Treasury Secretary Timothy) Geithner’s: that it’s voluntary by nature.”

In its July report, the GAO agreed.

“No comprehensive processes have yet been established to assure that all borrowers at risk of default in participating servicers’ (mortgage) portfolios are reached,” the report said.

The government's "carrot" approach to stopping foreclosures — offering $50 billion in incentives to servicers to modify loans — was adopted after the financial services industry successfully fought back a powerful "stick" that would have granted bankruptcy judges authority to modify the terms of a mortgage loan from the bench. Judges can do that with any other form of consumer debt in a bankruptcy proceeding but not mortgages.

Congress proposed the so-called “cramdown” provision several times in the past two years, including separate bills introduced in the House and Senate in January. But for now, there are no proposals to revive the bankruptcy provision or adopt other measures to force lenders to modify mortgages.

“At some point we have to realize is that the voluntary efforts haven’t worked,” said Kathleen Keest, a senior policy counsel at the Center for Responsible Lending. “It’s time to make it mandatory, but that can’t happen without Congress acting.”