Foreclosure Wave Bears Down on Immigrants

Francisco Santos, his wife, Linda, and their children including Astrid, 5, are losing their Woodbridge home to foreclosure.
Francisco Santos, his wife, Linda, and their children including Astrid, 5, are losing their Woodbridge home to foreclosure. "It's difficult," Francisco Santos says. "My wife, she says, 'Why? Why?' " (By Carol Guzy -- The Washington Post)
By Kirstin Downey
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, March 26, 2007

Immigrants are emerging as among the first victims of a growing wave of home foreclosures in the Washington area as mortgage lending problems multiply locally and across the country.

Nationally, 375,000 high-interest-rate loans were made to Hispanics in 2005, and nearly 73,000 of them are likely to go into foreclosure, said Aracely Panameño, director of Latino affairs for the Center for Responsible Lending. About 1.1 million homes in the United States are expected to go into foreclosure in the next six years, and many native-born Americans are likely to be stuck with burdensome loans. But immigrants are getting hit first in part because their incomes tend to be lower and many have lost construction jobs.

Homeownership rates among immigrants surged in the first half of the decade, making their prosperity an economic success story. Now it is becoming apparent that many people managed to buy homes in an inflated real estate market by turning to unusual new mortgages only now receiving scrutiny from regulators and legislators. Many of these loans start with attractive low "teaser" rates but feature payments that can suddenly increase.

Unfamiliar with the U.S. mortgage market, unable to speak or read English well and vulnerable to the blandishments of real estate professionals who told them property values always rise, many immigrants are struggling to deal with high mortgage payments as their homes sag in value, making it harder to escape the loans by selling.

Tysons Corner mortgage broker Jose Luis Semidey, who has a popular Spanish-language real estate talk show on Radio Universal, is being deluged with calls from desperate homeowners who are falling behind on their mortgages. The calls started in late 2005 and have steadily risen; he now receives 40 to 50 calls a day from throughout the area.

"I see more coming," Semidey said.

Panameño agreed. "I'm being flooded by phone calls from throughout the country from people begging for help," he said. "The best I can do is refer people to attorneys to get assistance."

Nahid Azimi, who immigrated to the United States from Afghanistan 22 years ago, recently stood in the upstairs hallway of her home in Loudoun County, silently sobbing as she removed the last of her personal items from the $410,000 townhouse in South Riding she bought with pride last summer. She said she was persuaded to buy the house by an Afghan real estate agent she considered a friend and by an Afghan mortgage broker who promised to get her a good loan.

Instead, Azimi, a cashier at Giant who makes $2,400 a month, found herself strapped into a no-down-payment loan with payments of $3,800 a month. She knew it would be impossible to make the payments, but the mortgage broker promised to refinance her loan to make it more affordable. Azimi couldn't qualify for the refinance, however, so she got a second job to try to cover the costs, borrowed money from her friends and tried unsuccessfully to sell the house. Then one day in November, she collapsed at work, in part because of the stress.

Today, she will call the loan servicing company and offer to give back the keys.

"I can't do it anymore," said Azimi, 44, a U.S. citizen. "I cannot afford it, and I don't want them to come one day and put my stuff on the street."

Some lenders allowed people to take out loans without verifying their income or their ability to repay. Traditionally, lenders have made loans only to people they thought could pay them back. Banking regulations forced lenders to adhere to strict lending policies, not just for the protection of borrowers but also to protect bank depositors, who would be hurt if the banks collapsed. But in recent years, lenders have found alternative sources of financing for the loans by turning to investors who bought the loans as packaged securities. These kinds of loans are not supervised in the same ways as loans made by banks and held in their portfolios.

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