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Pace of mortgage help rising but still slow

Mortgage servicing companies have the complex task of figuring out if millions of borrowers qualify for mortgage modifications. And there has been some progress lately getting homeowners sign up.
Foreclosure Aid Challenges
Bank of America home retention specialist Shontaye Edwards speaks to a customer at a mortgage call center in Plano, Texas, on Sept. 23, 2009.Lm Otero / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Shontaye Edwards spends her day in a gray cubicle at a Bank of America call center in this Dallas suburb. On the other end of the phone line are homeowners — tense, exasperated and looking for help.

They often call with questions about the Obama administration's plan to help borrowers modify their mortgages, but many simply don't qualify. They make too much money, or too little. They have too much debt. They don't actually live in the home.

"I do get attached at times," Edwards says during a momentary break in the office where she and about 350 colleagues sit under flat-screen displays showing how long callers have been kept on hold. "But at the same time ... we have to go by the procedures."

Since February, when President Barack Obama announced a lofty goal of limiting foreclosures by modifying up to 4 million loans over three years, the administration's program has been riddled with problems.

Banks couldn't hire and train employees fast enough to keep up with the crush of people who wanted to take advantage of the help. Documents were lost. The government kept changing the rules.

For the industry, the transformation has been tremendous.

Before the housing crisis, mortgage servicing companies had collections departments that mainly tried to wring payments from tardy borrowers. Now the same departments, augmented with thousands of new employees, are engaged in the far more complex task of figuring out whether millions of borrowers qualify for help.

Bank of America, which collects payments on more loans than any other mortgage company, has lagged its competitors in the percentage of troubled borrowers it has signed up.

The steady rise in unemployment has made the problem even worse. Bank of America is now getting about 100,000 calls a day from troubled homeowners, up from about 60,000 at the start of the year.

Government officials insist the program is on track. "We're reaching borrowers at a scale that has not been done by any other modification program," said Michael Barr, an assistant treasury secretary.

Indeed, there has been some progress lately. More people have been helped in recent months after the government started publishing a monthly report card detailing how many homeowners each bank had helped.

But experts still doubt the administration will come anywhere near its goals.

It’s a challenge to qualify
The program allows homeowners to have their mortgage interest rate reduced to as low as 2 percent for five years. After that, the rate can rise again, but the increases are capped at levels that were prevailing when the modification was made.

Qualifying is a challenge. For example, if you already spend less than 31 percent of your pretax income on your mortgage, you're out. Second homes don't qualify. Neither do vacant homes.

As of last month, about 20 percent of eligible borrowers, or more than 650,000 people, had signed up. However, most of those enrolled so far have been signed up only on a preliminary basis for trials lasting up to five months.

To make the change permanent, they have to complete a pile of paperwork and show they can make payments on time. As of the start of September, only 1,700 homeowners had completed the process. The government plans to publish an update in the coming weeks.

"We're just getting the early data in," Barr said. "But we can tell it's not good enough."

Call center uses ‘soft skills’
At the Bank of America call center in Texas, workers in the bank's "Home Retention" division get as many as 15 calls an hour. They're from people being laid off, getting divorced, dealing with a pileup of medical bills or trying to get out of a risky loan made during the housing boom.

On the other line are workers like Edwards, 23, who is also finishing her bachelor's degree at night. They make $28,000 to $35,000 per year, plus overtime and bonuses. They get four weeks of classroom training, starting with mortgage industry basics.

The training includes detailed scripts for how to respond to specific situations, such as when a borrower can't qualify because his income has been cut dramatically, and "soft skills," such as how to express empathy.

Edwards is polite and professional, even when emotions run high. "I have family that ... are in the process of losing their home and needing assistance," she says. "So I definitely understand."

BofA signs up fewer borrowers
The size of Bank of America's problem is huge. It is the nation's largest mortgage servicer, with about 14 million loans. Nearly two-thirds of those come from the troubled portfolio of Countrywide Financial, which Bank of America bought last year.

Since the Obama plan's launch, the bank has spent millions of dollars to upgrade its computer systems, including fax servers that couldn't handle the deluge of documents. It has hired and trained about 3,500 workers who take calls, process loans and work on computer systems since the start of the year, raising the total to about 13,000. The bank has 11 domestic call centers and one in Costa Rica that handles Spanish-speaking callers.

Many new hires have no previous mortgage industry experience. Edwards, for example, worked in a Westin hotel before starting at Bank of America last year. One of her co-workers used to be a marketing manager for an Oklahoma casino.

Bank of America has signed up nearly 137,000 homeowners. That's nearly five times as many as in July, and the biggest raw number of any lender in the program.

But, as a percentage of the bank's nearly 1 million eligible borrowers, it works out to 14 percent — far lower than competitors like Citigroup or JPMorgan Chase, which have signed up about 40 percent and 32 percent respectively.

Bank of America executives insist these numbers are misleading. They point out that they have extended aid to more than 223,000 additional borrowers this year — assistance that's not counted by the Treasury Department.

They also note that around a third of the bank's customers whom the government deems eligible for help actually don't qualify off the bat.

You ‘have to dance to their music’
Frustrated homeowners, however, say that getting the bank to respond is a confusing, prolonged ordeal.

George Hicks, a retired and disabled veteran from Clovis, Calif., has been trying since spring to get help with his mortgage after moving back into a home that he had used as a rental property.

He owes nearly $340,000 on a Countrywide Financial option-adjustable rate mortgage — a particularly toxic breed of loan that allowed borrowers to defer a portion of their interest payments and add them to the principal.

Hicks says he faxed documents several times and spoke with numerous Bank of America representatives but received conflicting responses. He finally was offered help after The Associated Press inquired about his case. The modification, if it is made final, will lower his monthly payment by about $100.

The process has been trying, he says, but "you kind of have to dance to their music."

Bank of America got $45 billion in federal bailout money, and its executives are sensitive to charges that they aren't doing enough to help ordinary Americans. Still, they also say that the enormous publicity around the program has created a belief — among homeowners whose financial pain isn't necessarily severe — that their lender is obligated to help.

"It's not an entitlement," said Jerry Durham, Bank of America's Texas-based vice president of homeownership preservation. "It's something that we use as a tool to help keep them in the home when they're facing hardship."

At the call center near Dallas, a fundraising-style thermometer on the wall tracks the successes, and managers are being asked to provide regular updates to senior executives at the Charlotte, N.C.-based bank. But Ken Scheller, a senior vice president, says the industry and government made it all sound too simple.

"When you apply it in the real world," he says. "It's got some additional complexities that I don't know that any of us thought of."