Amid rising foreclosure rate, some homeowners have success stories
Some believe the upward trend in foreclosures is a case of banks finally acting on long-abandoned properties, but without the front-page attention the first tsunami of foreclosures brought in 2008, or the "robo-signing" scandals that started in 2010, whereby lenders speedily processed huge numbers of foreclosures often using false information.
The top five states with the highest number of properties that received a foreclosure filing in January were California, Florida, Illinois, Michigan and Georgia, according to RealtyTrac, which tracks foreclosure, auction and bank-owned homes nationally. Nevada has the highest rate of foreclosures, at one in every 198 homes. North Dakota has the lowest, one in every 63,500 homes.
But there are more good-news stories emerging from the debris of the housing debacle, thanks to the relentless efforts of counselors who advocate on behalf of homeowners, getting them more favorable terms as their financial fortunes staggered along with that of the U.S. economy.
"The housing market is dysfunctional and it does nothing to help our most vulnerable," said Sean Wendlinder, a grants specialist for the Catholic Campaign for Human Development, during a Feb. 14 program at the Catholic Social Ministry Gathering in Washington.
Wendlinder cited the number of families who are "doubling up" in housing, the stress on families and marriages facing the threat of housing foreclosure, and the reduced academic performance of schoolchildren whose parents are wrapped up in trying to save their house.
Jeanne Reitz Fekade-Sellassie, a former CCHD staffer who now works in the National Foreclosure Mitigation Counseling Program for NeighborWorks America, pointed to studies that show that homeowners who get counseling when they face foreclosure are likelier to keep their house --- and that the more counseling they get, the more likely they are to prevent foreclosure.
The stories of homeowners themselves who escaped losing their homes could be enough to scare anyone into doing everything possible to stay current on their mortgages.
Judy Viola of Cortez, Pa., near Scranton, said she and her husband Frank bought their home in 1988 for $76,500, with a mortgage interest rate of 8.7 percent.
While their two sons were still in school, she said, Frank, a machinist, could not work because of a back problem. Corrective surgery made the problem worse, requiring a second operation. Then doctors discovered Judy had a pulmonary embolism, which she said has adversely affected how her brain functions. "We were 18 months with no pay" while the Social Security Administration continued its inaction on their application for disability benefits, Viola said.
"Foreclosure is very stressful. I can't tell you how it wears you down," she added. "I think it got to Frank more than it got to me, because as the man he expects to be able to provide."
Then help started trickling in. "When the story got out that we were in trouble, the Lions Club would help us. The neighbors would help us. We would find bags of food outside," Viola told Catholic News Service.
Then came what Viola called "the first ray of hope" in the person of Liz Hall, a counselor for Neighborhood Housing Services, who told the couple, "Don't worry, this is only temporary, this is not going to last forever." Then U.S. Sen. Bob Casey of Pennsylvania stepped in. His office asked the Social Security Administration to expedite the handling of their application, regardless of what the results might be.
"Frank got his disability (benefits), we got a modified mortgage. We're back on our feet. We stayed in our house," Viola said. Both of them work part time for a merchandising company that lets them set their own hours. Their sons, now both with college degrees, also hold down jobs, although not in the fields of study they chose, and live at home to help with the family income.
In Rio Rico, Ariz., between Tucson and Nogales, Laura Tellez was helped by a counselor from the Pio Decimo Center, a Catholic Charities affiliate in southern Arizona.
"The house where we were living at was falling apart," said Tellez, a single mother who had two of her six children still living at home while she also cared for her 84-year-old mother. "The pipes were horrible, the kids were developing asthma," she recalled. Tellez bought a new home in 2006 for $138,000; the builder fled to Mexico after the boiler caught fire; and promised cement work was never done.
Tellez has a 30-year, subprime adjustable-rate mortgage and started out paying $996 a month. "And then it went to $1,400. The next thing I know I got a letter and it went up to $1,600," she told CNS. "It was so tough for me. I got a salary cut, a wage cut here at work, medical bills." Those medical costs included a new pacemaker for her mother, treatment for one son's broken finger and another son's emergency gall-bladder surgery.
Lydia Gonzalez, the Pio Decimo counselor, worked with Tellez and her bank to get a fixed rate of 5.25 percent so that now she pays just under $1,000, like her original mortgage payment.
But it is hardly easy street for Tellez. She works two jobs back-to-back, first as an elementary school security guard and then in "loss prevention" for a discount department store. And, without a car of her own, she depends on rides from a neighbor, a school co-worker and one of her daughters to get her from place to place.
"I start work at 6:40 in the morning and I don't come home until 11:30 at night," Tellez said.
Even so, she hopes to save a little money for home improvements, especially the planting of trees and flowers on her property to combat soil erosion --- another flaw the builder never fixed. "I'd like for my mom to see something pretty outside the house when she looks out the window," Tellez said.
To Fekade-Sellassie, it will be an ongoing treadmill just to keep households from falling into foreclosure. "Twenty percent of all homeowners will default on their mortgages in the next six years," she said.