Thousands of Washington area homeowners facing foreclosure have deluged state housing agencies with last-minute appeals for help from a $1 billion federal mortgage assistance program set to expire at the end of the month.
In Maryland, where homeowners must apply for assistance by Friday, figuring out who qualifies for help has become an urgent, all-consuming enterprise. The state’s housing agency has hired temps, conscripted division heads to do data entry, and asked employees to stay late and work weekends to attack piles of paperwork that have grown exponentially as the deadline loomed.
About 4,000 Marylanders struggling to hold on to their homes have applied, including hundreds who turned out for a mortgage-assistance workshop in Prince George’s County, which has one of the highest foreclosure rates in the state.
An additional 10,000 sought help in Virginia, where the deadline to apply for the program passed Thursday and eligibility is being determined by the federal government rather than the state. District homeowners participate in a separate program that does not have an immediate deadline.
Many of those seeking help from the Emergency Mortgage Assistance Program, as it is known in Maryland, will not qualify because they do not meet its long list of requirements. Their frantic scramble comes amid signs that the number of foreclosures, which had slowed dramatically after problems surfaced with how lenders were processing the paperwork, could begin rising again.
The number of U.S. homes with an initial default notice, the first step in the foreclosure process, rose 33 percent in August from July, foreclosure listing firm RealtyTrac said.
Roseanna Vogt, 58, is desperate to avoid losing her Calvert County home. She was among scores of homeowners who made the trek to the state Department of Housing and Community Development in Crownsville on Thursday to hand-deliver her mortgage-assistance application.
She said she has been looking for work since she was laid off by a nonprofit group more than a year ago. She recently divorced and as part of the settlement took possession of her house in Chesapeake Beach. But without a job, she cannot afford the mortgage payments. Her ex-husband had been covering them but recently told her that he was going to stop. She has lived in the house for 22 years and has $110,000 left to pay off.
“Things have gotten so bad for me. I don’t have a vehicle anymore,” she said. “It is sitting in the driveway. I don’t have the money to fix it.”
She came to drop off her application with a friend, Susan Prentice, 41, of Huntingtown, a widow with cerebral palsy who is trying to stay in her home even though her lender, Fannie Mae, has foreclosed on it.
The mortgage-assistance program, part of last year’s financial regulatory legislation, offers bridge loans to homeowners who have fallen behind on their mortgages and have lost income because of the recession. The loans are to help cover mortgage payments for up to two years, or a maximum of $50,000.
The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development distributed the money based on state unemployment rates. It gave $39 million to Maryland and almost $47 million to Virginia. The District, through a separate federal program, received almost $8 million to help jobless homeowners facing foreclosure.
The money must be committed by the end of the fiscal year, Sept. 30, leaving state and federal officials little time to review the applications. The process can take 30 minutes or several weeks, depending on whether there are gaps in the paperwork. One HUD official likened the scene at the federal agency, which is handling the Virginia applications, to April 14 in an accountant’s office.
The underwriters must not only crunch numbers but also read hardship letters, which the applicants are required to submit. The letters offer a glimpse of the recession’s toll on people’s lives.
“Sometimes they go into a lot of stuff that has nothing to do with the loan. They just want to get stuff off their chest — anger at a lender, an ex-spouse,” said Bill Milko, a senior underwriter.
“They want to tell you their life story,” said Donna Mitchel, another senior underwriter.
Sometimes, being candid can backfire. One purpose of the letters is to help underwriters verify that mortgage payment problems are rooted in the economic downturn and not some other reason.
Underwriter Brian Woodley recalled one letter that began, “Our story begins in 1988,” well before the recent recession.
The underwriters say they feel sympathy for the applicants. Milko was unemployed for more than a year before he came to work for the state. Like a couple of his colleagues, he is a casualty of the mortgage industry meltdown. Woodley went through a layoff and a divorce a few years ago.
Sensitivity matters, because in a small number of cases, deciding who gets a loan involves judgment calls. The criteria are strict. The applicants’ income must have fallen by at least 15 percent. And they must be able to show that once the loan is gone, they can resume payments. That means the underwriters have to turn down many people who need help, such as an elderly person on a fixed income.
“You can see where they need the help, but they won’t be able to increase their income,” Woodley said.
Milko added, “In the real world, we know that’s a hardship, but to HUD, it’s not.”
Downstairs, Juanita Cage Lewis, a customer service manager and ombudsman for the state housing agency, wrapped up a phone call with an Annapolis woman who was not able to print the application. Lewis promised the woman, who was driving over, that she would print her a copy and hand it to her.
The phone at Lewis’s desk has been ringing continuously for the past few days with calls about the assistance program, including from people who had already been rejected. The underwriters have gotten so busy reviewing applications, they can no longer take calls from applicants. So Lewis has become the buffer. She’s learned to just listen.
“They tell me about their mother and father. They’re living with a disabled child,” she said.
Then her phone rang.
“That’s the latest, 4 o’clock tomorrow,” she said to a caller. “But try to get it in today.”