Forcing banks to face foreclosed homeowners
Before her husband died, Valerie O’Connor saw the writing on the wall. She wouldn’t be able to afford to stay in their tiny Renton home on her own without taking out a new mortgage.
O’Connor’s husband Daniel built the one-bedroom house in the Renton Highlands in 1946 after he came home from the war. Medical bills had drained his resources and, to save the home, he’d taken out a reverse mortgage, a type of loan that allows the elderly to stretch out and lower their house payments.
Under federal law, Valerie O’Connor, 58, wasn’t old enough to get a reverse mortgage. She took out a conventional loan, but just had too many bills after her husband’s death and fell behind on her payments.
In June of 2009, she called her lender, Chase Mortgage, for help getting a loan modification. What she got instead, she said, was 18 months of runaround. In the quest to get her loan modified, O’Connor said she sent more than 300 emails to Chase, dealt with 40 different customer service agents and bank representatives and even filed bankruptcy.
Foreclosures are rising in Washington state, with one of out of every 693 homes currently in some stage of bank repossession, according to the Washington Low Income Housing Alliance.
Advocates for these homeowners say that rather than granting a loan modification that would reduce payments and keep people in their homes, banks drag their feet, “lose” paperwork and stall their way to foreclosure.
A bill currently making its way through the legislature would have helped O’Connor by requiring that Chase deal with her directly. The Foreclosure Fairness Act—House Bill 1362 and Senate Bill 5275—would require an authorized decision-maker from a bank to sit down with a struggling homeowner and discuss whether the homeowner is eligible for a private or federal loan modification program.
It is the second year in a row that housing advocates have pushed for the bill, which would address the difficulties that homeowners like O’Connor say they have faced getting relief under a federal program, the Home Affordable Modification Program, that President Barack Obama created to help them.
In her June 2009 call to Chase, O’Connor asked to apply for the HAMP program. It took nearly two months for Chase to send back the application paperwork, she said.
She filled it out and provided all the necessary documents called for, to no avail, she said. In November of 2009, a trustee office working on Chase’s behalf in Bellevue sent her a Notice of Default, the first step in a foreclosure.
She called Chase and a representative told her they had no record of her HAMP application. That’s a common refrain from banks, O’Connor and other home-owners say. The representative later verified they did have the application. In November 2009, she also got a letter notifying her that Chase intended to sell her home in March 2010.
The notice scared her. O’Connor called the trustee office and pointed out that, under HAMP’s federal guidelines, Chase wasn’t supposed to foreclose while her application was in process. The response she got was shocking, she said.
“When are you people going to understand that’s all they are—guidelines?” she said a man at the office told her.
He told her Chase could process her application and foreclose on her at the same time, O’Connor said.
In December 2010, Chase finally sent her paperwork to sign to get her loan modification, but she had many questions. For one thing, the paperwork listed what her reduced monthly payment would be, but nothing about the terms to which she would agree.
She called a phone number included with the forms next to a cheerful statement that read “Chase is here to help.” Three more months rolled by, she said, without a word, despite her repeated calls and emails to the bank.
In desperation, she filed a Chapter 13 bankruptcy. That stopped Chase from taking her home, but only temporarily. As soon as the court reorganized her debts and dismissed the case, Chase was after her again.
Darcy Donohoe-Wilmot, a Seattle-based spokesperson for Chase, said most problems with applications for mortgages or loan modifications start with the homeowner failing to provide the right paperwork.
Chase did open a special office last year in Tukwila to provide homeowners with in-person help for getting loan modifications. The location is one of 51 Chase Homeownership Centers that the bank has opened around the nation, she said, with another to open in Tacoma later this year.
“The neat thing about that is that (the homeowners) work with one person,” Donohoe-Wilmot said, “so they’re not continually telling their story to a different person on the phone.”
This help comes too late for O’Connor, but she still managed to save her home. Last month, after she called the state Attorney General’s Office to complain, Chase finally relented and granted her loan modification under the HAMP program.
It was a hellish year and a half, she said, and she’s hoping no one else has to go through what she did. This week she’ll go to Olympia to lobby on behalf of the Foreclosure Fairness Act.
“Had (Chase) told me when I was two or three months behind what it would be like, I would have whored myself” to save the house, O’Connor said.
“I thought (HAMP) was a program that was supposed to help people,” she said. “Can you believe how stupid I was?”
The lack of “teeth” in Federal regulations is a symptom of what’s wrong with our government. The legislation should have required the bank to halt foreclosure until the homeowners HAMP application had been processed. Leaving such a decision up to the common sense or goodwill of the bank is like telling the scorpion not to sting the frog.
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