Maryland vs. Virginia: Two different approaches to foreclosure

March 3, 2012

Before the housing meltdown, Maryland’s foreclosure process was so quick that it was nicknamed “the rocket docket.”

Foreclosures had to be filed in local courts and approved by judges, but the court’s involvement was so minimal and the deadlines so swift that a lender could schedule a foreclosure sale 15 days after the borrower defaulted.

In 2007, as thousands of Marylanders began losing their homes at an alarming pace, Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) vowed to end what he called the “fast track to foreclosure.”

Starting in 2008, state lawmakers passed a series of measures designed to give homeowners — some the victims of predatory lending, others hurt by the recession — more time to find a way to stay in their homes. The changes included forcing lenders to wait longer to file foreclosures, giving homeowners more access to housing counseling, and requiring lenders to participate in mediation.

Each change forced banks, loan servicers and the courts to adjust the way they do business, adding long delays to the foreclosure process. And last year, major lenders voluntarily halted foreclosures nationwide over concerns about “robosigning,” in which employees at firms hired to process foreclosure documents routinely signed them without reading them.

The result: Maryland has gone from having one of the country’s fastest foreclosure systems to having one of the slowest.

Foreclosure activity in the Free State fell by 16 percent in the three months after the 2008 changes took effect and by 58 percent in the three months after a mediation law took effect in 2010, according to a state report. But sales activity and prices fell as well.

The starkest example of these trends is in Prince George’s County, which has led the state in foreclosures since the beginning of the housing bust.

Homes in Prince George’s have lost 52 percent of their value from their peak in 2006, and houses now spend an average of 102 days on the market, according to Metropolitan Regional Information Systems, which tracks real estate data. And as of January, 52 percent of county homeowners owed more than their houses were worth, according to data compiled by RealtyTrac for The Washington Post.

Some economists and housing experts contend that Maryland’s efforts to protect distressed homeowners are stifling a recovery in the very communities they are trying to help.

They point to Virginia, where lenders can foreclose without going through the courts, and where the housing market has rebounded more quickly. In 2011, median home sale prices in Virginia rose 0.8 percent, real estate research firm CoreLogic reported, while in Maryland they fell by 3.8 percent.

“The real issue is the length of time of the process. If you just keep pushing back foreclosures that would happen anyway, it just delays the inevitable,” said Thomas A. Lawler, whose firm, Lawler Economic & Housing Consulting, provides market data, analysis and forecasts. “I am not saying therefore everyone should have a fast process that is not fair, but a fair process should not leave a house in foreclosure for multiple years.”

The delays contribute to what’s known as the “shadow inventory” — houses that are heading toward foreclosure but have not reached the market. Maryland has a far larger shadow inventory than Virginia, a fact that is likely to have a negative effect on Maryland home prices for months, experts say. A special task force recommended in January that Maryland speed up the foreclosure process for vacant homes.

But Virginia’s faster foreclosure process has trade-offs, too, counselors and homeowner advocacy groups say. They say it has been brutal for families in Prince William County, another epicenter of the housing meltdown.

At the height of the crisis, Matty Lupo, a leader of Virginians Organized for Interfaith Community Engagement, an advocacy group for homeowners, remembers families living out of cars and in shelters, being separated, or driven from the county. Even now, she said, Prince William homeowners are still being hurt by harrowing cases of bank incompetence or indifference.

“It’s very sad,” Lupo said. “And it’s still going on.”

Annys Shin has been a staff writer at the Washington Post since 2004.
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