Prince William County has few mortgage counselors despite great need


Foreclosure properties are seen in Prince William County in 2008 at the height of the foreclosure crisis. Years later, the county has few mortgage counselors to help those facing financial troubles. (TRACY A WOODWARD/THE WASHINGTON POST)
September 17, 2012

“Can I get your name and the account number you’re talking about?” the bank representative asks.

Things are tense in the office of Charlene Watkins-Byrd, a housing counselor for the Woodbridge-based nonprofit group First Home Alliance. But when Watkins-Byrd calls the mortgage servicer on behalf of David and his wife, Rebekah, a game of seemingly pleasant cat-and-mouse between housing counselor and financial agency representative ensues.

A professional, effusive but urgent tone takes over. (David and Rebekah did not want their last names used because of the stigma of facing foreclosure.)

The couple’s case is just one on a packed schedule one day in recent months. David was hurt in an accident at a company retreat, and since then his life has been at a standstill. Because of his lack of income, he and his wife face foreclosure.

They have lived in their Prince William County home for more than a decade and didn’t believe in selling when values increased. He’d just buy the home and “live there, die and that’d be it,” David said.

It’s Wednesday. Their home is scheduled to be auctioned in five days, and Watkins-Byrd is all that stands between them and eviction.

Desperate need for funds

As of a few months ago, there were just three Department of Housing and Urban Development-certified counselors such as Watkins-Byrd in the county, according to Virginians Organized for Interfaith Community Engagement (VOICE), an advocacy group made up of Northern Virginia religious leaders that focuses on housing issues in Prince William.

Some good news, however, has arrived for First Home Alliance and other groups focused on foreclosure mitigation counseling. Watkins-Byrd’s group was recently awarded a $72,000 grant from Bank of America, allowing it to bolster her salary and hire another part-time counselor, said Larry Laws, the organization’s executive director.

The counselor will be in training for about a year, because certification requirements are onerous, Laws said. In the meantime, Laws hopes Bank of America will provide more funding for next year so he can put the new counselor to work.

Without more funding, “I’ll be back in the situation I was in three months ago,” Laws said.

Funding for five more counselors — or $363,000 total in grants from Bank of America, J.P. Morgan Chase and General Electric — has been committed to Prince William agencies in recent weeks, a result of a push by VOICE leaders to hold banks accountable for the housing crisis.

Based on the population, and the fact that about half of all Prince William homeowners owe more than their homes are worth, some would like to see about 15 housing counselors in the county, which was hit hard by the 2008 foreclosure crisis. Although Prince William’s housing market and economy have markedly improved, many homeowners are still dealing with the crisis’s aftermath.

Studies have shown that homeowners are less likely to go into foreclosure with a housing counselor advocating for them. A study released by HUD recently showed that with the help of a counselor, 70 percent of homeowners were able to find a solution to stay in their homes, and 56 percent caught up on their mortgage payments.

The funding for foreclosure mitigation counseling is simply hard to obtain, and experts say that homeowners suffer as a result. Laws said he thinks that given issues such as homelessness and gang violence, housing counseling just doesn’t seem to stack up.

“The foreclosure crisis is seen as a middle-class or upper-class problem,” Laws said. “The money is just not there.”

The housing market’s boom times were also a boon to First Home Alliance, which started in 2002. Laws’ budget grew when he offered programs such as first-time home buyer classes, for example. When those who took the class bought a home, his organization got a cut.

In 2007, Laws had 12 employees and a large office in Dale City with an annual budget of nearly $400,000. Laws now has one part-time employee, Watkins-Byrd, and an annual budget of $141,000. He shares office space with another organization in Woodbridge and has a satellite office in Arlington County.

“The problem is not going away, but the funding is,” Laws said.

A voice for the needy

Watkins-Byrd has been persistent. As of the phone call with the bank rep on David and Rebekah’s behalf, she has called the bank 94 times since 2009.

As David nervously twirls his glasses, Rebekah vents to Watkins-Byrd. “I want to talk to her supervisor. We should have been told.”

The representative didn’t mention to them during their negotiations that the bank was moving ahead with foreclosing on their home. Watkins-Byrd and the couple don’t bring that up — they want the bank rep on their side.

The dispute at hand is seemingly minor: They should be able to stave off foreclosure if they can prove David has been making more money. As he has recovered, he has gotten more work and more pay. But there is a problem with his paperwork, one David and Rebekah think should be easy to resolve.

As a housing counselor, Watkins-Byrd speaks the language of the bank and can serve as an advocate, while being able to maintain a calm demeanor as she negotiates with financial institutions. David and Rebekah said they notice a marked difference between how they’re treated when they call the bank vs. how the bank reps talk to Watkins-Byrd.

After a conversation with the bank rep, Watkins-Byrd said they will submit new paperwork proving that David is making more — something they think they’ve already done.

David and Rebekah leave the office, nervous but hopeful.

In between clients, Watkins-Byrd goes down the list of open cases and calls banks to see whether there are any changes in her cases. It’s necessary to follow-up as much as possible, she said, lest something fall through the cracks.

The work is tedious, and Watkins-Byrd is juggling her toddler son as she works. Because of the organization’s woes, she wasn’t able to afford day care, she said.

Watkins-Byrd could leave for a better-paying job in the financial industry, she said. But as a former loan officer helping process “exotic” loans, she said she has gone that route before. The work nagged at her conscience, knowing that most of the people her institution was approving for loans were headed down a bad road.

For Watkins-Byrd, owning a home means more than four walls and a mortgage. It gives people roots and builds communities.

The struggle continues

The day before the foreclosure sale for David and Rebekah, Watkins-Byrd said she had a final phone call with the bank.

It was mostly good news for the couple. The bank was holding off on the foreclosure.

But in the months since then, David and Rebekah said, they have been in limbo. The bank changes them from representative to representative, and there is never any news about whether they qualify for the federal Home Affordable Modification Program, which helps struggling homeowners lower their mortgage.

“David and I had many, many nights . . . of no sleeping and no eating,” Rebekah said.

David has picked up more hours at his job, sometimes 14 a day. But they have stopped paying their mortgage, David said, because the bank hasn’t told them what the new payment is. Without the help of Watkins-Byrd and his wife, David said he might have walked away. But she is staying involved, and the couple continues to press the bank for help.

After years of struggle, David said, he has come to the conclusion that the bank’s intransigence is purposeful.

“They kick us out of there; they can get more money out of it,” he said. “What else are you supposed to think?”

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