As N.Va. neighbors show, housing mess isn’t limited to the irresponsible

Petula Dvorak
Columnist April 11, 2011

The nation’s lingering housing foreclosure mess is too often about folks with McMansion-size aspirations and duplex paychecks, granite counter appetites and laminate budgets.

And when we hear that one of the nation’s hot spots for foreclosures is Prince William County, we nod knowingly, thinking of the vast tracts of huge new homes and the dreamers who drowned in them.

Petula is a columnist for The Washington Post's local team who writes about homeless shelters, gun control, high heels, high school choirs, the politics of parenting, jails, abortion clinics, mayors, modern families, strip clubs and gas prices, among other things. View Archive

But the other day, I met some of the folks who lost their homes or are fighting with banks to try to keep them. And McMansion isn’t what comes to mind.

“We still have the ’80s carpet in the house; we never refinanced and remodeled. We really saved, and we were careful,” said Susan Reed, who is trying to figure out whether to pay her health insurance premium or the mortgage on her family’s Manassas home this month.

It’s been like this every month, lately.

The Reeds — mom, dad and four kids — upgraded from a 1,150-square-foot home to a 2,200-square-foot home in 1994. They never missed a mortgage payment.

But recently, her husband was laid off from his food-service job. Then he was laid off again. And then again. As the economy crumbled and he grew older, fewer places wanted to hire him.

Even with his wife’s earnings as a store manager, the couple’s income dropped by 73 percent.

They put off one son’s college expenses. They cut their cable, stopped eating out, stopped doing anything that cost money. They tried to modify their mortgage with Bank of America to fit their new income. Not pay less, just pay longer.

That involved months of paperwork and ping-ponging between all kinds of different offices and departments. You know the scenario: voice mails, phone trees, “press ‘1’ for the loan officer. . . .

Last month, they got their denial letter. “We were denied because we never missed a payment,” Reed said.

“You are not eligible,” the letter said, “because you’re not in danger of default.”

Punished for doing the right thing. And here’s what’s really awful about it. This is the same bank that got a $45 billion bailout from taxpayers when it was in trouble.

“Our tax dollars bailed them out. When my family needs a little help, why can’t they help us out?” Reed demanded as we walked through her neighborhood, Georgetown South, where 30 percent of the tiny brick townhouses have been foreclosed on and the value of homes has plunged from $200,00 to just $40,000.

Leslie Jones remembers when more than 60 percent of the townhouses there were owned by small families like hers. She has lived there since the 1980s and bought her home in 1991.

“Now, it’s just a lot of renters. And those landlords don’t care who they bring in. It’s just money to them,” Jones said.

Jones, Reed and about 200 others who belong to VOICE (Virginians Organized for Interfaith Community Engagement) for Justice, marched through Georgetown South on Sunday, planting signs on the lawns of foreclosed and empty homes.

They don’t want loans forgiven. They simply want the banks to help modify family’s loan payments, something many banks do reluctantly and rarely.

A group of state attorneys general met in Washington last month to pressure banks to do better with loan modifications. In response, the bankers issued a statement promising to change the kind of stuff that drove the Lemus family to tears.

Edgar Lemus lived in Dale City for 10 years, never missing a payment on his home. When he asked for a loan modification from Chase Bank, it was approved, and he continued to make payments.

Suddenly, Chase sent him a letter announcing foreclosure. Chase apparently had no record of his year of modified payments; the two-track systems of foreclosure and loan modification never talked. It’s exactly the problem that federal officials thumped the banks for last month, and the thing they promised will end.

“I’m tired of this,” Lemus said, his voice quivering. Wiping his eyes, he explained, “I’m in pain.”

This is the story that many church leaders in Northern Virginia are hearing. Families caught up in job losses and unsympathetic lenders who don’t show the heart that small banks used to.

“There is no morality, no humanity, no caring for the community with these banks,” said the Rev. Clyde Ellis, the senior pastor at Mount Olive Baptist Church in Woodbridge, where large swaths of the congregation are in trouble.

In addition to fixing the loan modification process, leaders of VOICE for Justice want Bank of America, J.P. Morgan and General Electric’s subprime mortgage units — among the biggest lenders to Prince William residents during the boom — to create a multimillion-dollar fund to offer zero-percent loans to underwater homeowners.

Big demands from a bunch of churchgoers out in a neighborhood on a Sunday afternoon.

But Ellis is optimistic that their demands can be met and that homes can be saved. Maybe the CEOs whose pictures they carried through the street won’t come down to the picnic table outside the Georgetown South Community Center to meet with them. But they’re hoping Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.), who is on the Senate Banking Committee, will listen and take up their cause.

Senator, are you listening? There’s a picnic table out in Manassas with a seat waiting for you.

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