On Hill, a voice for distressed homeowners

Rep. Elijah E. Cummings doesn’t need to go farther than his front stoop to see the scars of the housing crisis.

“That one was foreclosed on,” the 61-year-old Maryland Democrat said on a recent morning outside his brick rowhouse in this city’s Madison Park neighborhood, pointing to an empty house nearby with a “No Trespassing” sign in the front window.

“That house has been vacant now at least 9 months,” Cummings said, nodding across the street toward another home, its windows boarded shut. The owner lost his job and no longer could afford the payments, he said. “He was a good guy.”

“This house here was in foreclosure,” Cummings said, pointing farther down the block. “I understand someone just bought it for a song and a dance.”

Every community in the country has felt the sting of the housing bust, which has stretched into its sixth year. But in Cummings’s sprawling district — mostly urban, mostly African American, largely working- and middle-class — the foreclosure wave hit particularly hard.


Rep. Elijah E. Cummings (D-Md.) holds a foreclosure-prevention workshop in his hard-hit district. (Marvin Joseph/THE WASHINGTON POST)

In recent years, Cummings has dedicated a substantial amount of time and energy — and outrage — trying to force changes he says would help stem the ripple effects of the foreclosure epidemic, particularly on minority communities that have suffered disproportionately from the fallout.

Earlier this month, he held the seventh foreclosure-prevention workshop in his district. The events bring bank representatives together with struggling borrowers hoping to modify their loans and remain in their homes.

In Washington, where he is the ranking Democrat on the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, Cummings has become one of Capitol Hill’s most outspoken lawmakers on the need for more government aid to troubled homeowners.

He has also emerged as a fervent critic of Edward J. DeMarco, the chief regulator of government-backed mortgage giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, who has resisted proposals that the two firms reduce the amount certain borrowers owe on their mortgages.

Cummings has backed efforts, some more successful than others, to investigate mortgage-related abuses by banks and lenders, to expand foreclosure protections for U.S. servicemembers and their families and to make it easier for some homeowners to refinance their loans at lower interest rates. He has even done something he rarely does on other topics: criticize the Obama administration, saying it hasn’t done enough to help those in need.

When Cummings speaks about the foreclosure crisis, he talks of children displaced and neighborhoods destabilized, of lost pride and lowered expectations, of vanishing wealth, of anxious borrowers jolting awake at 4 a.m. with worries of how to make ends meet.

“A lot of people say, let them be foreclosed upon because you are holding off the inevitable,” Cummings said. “I don’t see these folks who are losing their houses as some kind of collateral damage. This is usually their biggest investment in life. This is where they raise their family . . . The people that come to me, they don’t want a handout, they just want to be able to get through this storm.”

It’s a feeling Cummings himself has known.

In 1997, the company holding his mortgage initiated foreclosure proceedings after he missed six months of payments. He fell behind because of overdue tax bills, medical expenses and child-support payments, according to a Baltimore Sunstory that later detailed his financial woes. Cummings also said in an interview that giving up his law practice to run for Congress put a dent in his income.

He eventually paid off his bills and caught up on his mortgage, but the brush with foreclosure has stuck with him. “That had an impact on me, because I could see how people could slip into a problem like that,” he said.

His recent efforts to help others facing foreclosure have won Cummings admiration at home.

“I live in his district, and I don’t think homeowners have a better friend in Congress,” said Marceline White, director of the Maryland Consumer Rights Coalition. “You have neighborhoods that are fighting this issue everyday . . . He’s calling for what absolutely needs to be done.”

Maryland Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler (D), who has also worked with Cummings closely on housing issues in the state, said many Maryland lawmakers have shown interest in helping homeowners, but Cummings “has made it his passion.”

In Washington, Cummings hasn’t always garnered such praise. He has butted heads repeatedly with House oversight committee Chairman Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) , as well as with many other House Republicans.

Cummings has repeatedly criticized Issa for not pressing harder to investigate banks and lenders accused of a wide range of foreclosure abuses and for opposing reductions in the mortgage balances of struggling borrowers. Issa says the practice could lead other homeowners to stop paying mortgages in hopes that the government would come to the rescue.

Spokesman Frederick Hill said Issa has held numerous hearings on the foreclosure crisis during the past two years, including one in Cummings’s district.

Hill said Issa doesn’t think anyone has made a convincing case for large-scale principal reductions, and instead prefers other tools such as principal forbearance, which allows borrowers to pay only the interest on a loan for a set amount of time in order to lower their payments. Issa also has argued that delaying foreclosures often postpones getting those homes into the hands of those who can afford them.

“Many of the policies ranking member Cummings have advocated, these are the policies that have extended the length of the foreclosure crisis, rather than letting the market quickly adjust,” Hill said. “They’ve often been giveaways that put the onus on taxpayers.”

DeMarco also has challenged the allegation that he has prevented Fannie and Freddie from reducing mortgage balances solely for ideological reasons, saying that he is not yet convinced such an approach would benefit taxpayers over time.

Cummings is one of many officials trying to solve the complex consequences of the housing crisis. A recent $25 billion foreclosure settlement between the government and big banks could help a some borrowers. Other lawmakers have pushed forward with their own efforts, such as a bipartisan bill introduced in the House this month that would require Fannie and Freddie to set up principal-reduction pilot programs.

As with those other efforts, Cummings acknowledges that his own success has been limited and that he has helped only a fraction of those in need.

“I’ll take a family at a time, because I know that if it were not for certain things that we're doing, that would have been a family destabilized,” he said. “I’ll take the pieces. I just wish I could do more. I wish we could move even faster.”

Brady Dennis is a national reporter for The Washington Post, focusing on food and drug issues.
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