By Ovetta Wiggins
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 16, 2008
The lawns on Bar Geese Court are neatly manicured, in keeping with the homeowners association rules that the grass be tidy. The spacious homes with brick fronts, glistening Palladian windows and bumped-out family rooms sit stately on quiet cul-de-sacs and winding streets.
The Perrywood subdivision in Upper Marlboro has long been synonymous with the pride and promise of Prince George's County, the nation's wealthiest majority African-American jurisdiction.
Lately, though, this suburban idyll has been afflicted by the same economic forces that have plagued less prosperous communities.
Two of eight homeowners on Bar Geese are in foreclosure, according to RealtyTrac, which documents housing trends. In the past two years, 49 owners in the 1,100-home subdivision have either received notices threatening foreclosure, gone through auction proceedings or had their homes repossessed. Fourteen of those actions occurred in the past four months.
With foreclosures nationwide at a record high in the fourth quarter of 2007, almost 3 percent of homes in predominantly black Perrywood were in foreclosure last year, a figure that is almost double the Prince George's rate and more than three times the state's rate.
Perrywood's story is remarkable, not just for its cluster of defaults or the relative affluence of its residents. It also reflects a troubling national trend: African American homeowners and other minorities are more likely than non-Hispanic white borrowers to be saddled with the subprime loans and adjustable-rate mortgages that put them at greater risk of losing their homes. Black women were five times more likely than white men to receive subprime loans in 2006, a report by the Urban League says.
But the Perrywood story is one of resilience. Owners in default are not walking away or neglecting their properties, as is increasingly happening in California and Florida. Few Perrywood residents even know their neighbors are in financial distress.
"Don't let the green grass and pretty houses fool you," Kimberly Mitchell, who is facing foreclosure, told her young son as they drove through their neighborhood. "America puts a pretty face on it."Falling Behind Each Month
When Mitchell, 38, first saw the townhouse on Whistling Duck Drive, she knew she had found her next home.
The three-story house with a brick front and entry set off by white columns offered plenty of space and was close to a good school. Mitchell, a single mother, bought the house eight years ago for $200,000 and took out a fixed-rate mortgage with a 7 percent interest rate. It was her first house, and, as a young woman earning $90,000 a year at a job in sales, she was proud of it.
"It took us over a year, every time we turned the doorknob, to stop crying," she said.
Longing for a chance to start her own business and spend more time with her son, Mitchell left her corporate job in 2002 and started a day-care center in her home. The day-care business and finances were fine, she said, until she decided to refinance her home in 2005 and tap its equity to consolidate bills. Her loan officer steered her to an 8 percent adjustable-rate mortgage, assuring her that she could refinance later and return to a fixed-rate interest loan.
Mitchell said her monthly payment jumped by $300 a month, and she quickly fell behind. She later learned that her property taxes of more than $3,000 a year were no longer a part of her mortgage payments. In October, her rate will increase to more than 10 percent.
Mitchell recently discussed a letter she received from her lender that threatened foreclosure and the anger she feels about what she considers an "unscrupulous loan." She acknowledged that she was too trusting and did not read all the paperwork, which she regrets.
Now she is stuck.
"When you call a refinance company, they base it on your credit score," Mitchell said, adding that her credit is not good. "It's a no-win situation."
She said she doubted her neighbors were aware of her situation, which she does not discuss.
Fighting back tears, Mitchell described the stress she has endured. She said she and her son have resorted to eating noodles and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches several times a week to save money.
"I don't know the last time I got eight hours of straight sleep," she said. "I just feel robbed."Many Subprime Loans
In Perrywood, where recent list prices ranged from $329,900 for a townhouse to $679,000 for a detached house, dozens of Mitchell's neighbors are facing similar financial woes. Several residents listed on RealtyTrac's foreclosure records would not answer their doors to a reporter or return phone calls. Most who did talk did not want their names published.
"People are suffering in silence," said state Sen. Ulysses Currie (D-Prince George's), who represents Perrywood. "They get behind in the payments, go into denial, feel like it's not happening."
Perrywood's predicament is not unique. Well-to-do developments in Las Vegas, Phoenix and Riverside County, Calif., are also feeling the brunt of the mortgage crisis, said Richard Green, a finance professor at George Washington University. Often these homeowners simply took on more debt than they could handle, he said, counting on rising home values to bail them out. When the market foundered, many were left owing more than their houses were worth.
In Perrywood and more broadly in Prince George's, Maryland officials said they think discriminatory lending practices also played a part in the rise of foreclosures.
"It's an issue that has to be looked at very carefully," said Maryland Labor Secretary Thomas E. Perez. "People ask why is this happening disproportionately in Prince George's County. It's not difficult to understand when you know it's a majority African American county."
In Baltimore, city officials filed suit in January against Wells Fargo Bank, claiming that the lender sold higher-interest subprime loans to black homeowners more frequently than to white borrowers. Steven A. Silverman, consumer protection chief for the Maryland attorney general's office, said the state is reviewing Baltimore's claims.
Perez, who was chairman of a state task force on foreclosures, said he thinks some borrowers in Prince George's were steered toward adjustable-rate loans when they qualified for better deals.
Prince George's residents, on average, have credit scores that are higher than the state average, according to CreditXpert, a credit-management software company in Towson.
About 58 percent of county residents who refinanced homes in 2006 received subprime loans, compared with 34 percent of homeowners statewide, according to statistics provided by Maryland Legal Aid.
The county's foreclosure rate reached 1.5 percent last year, twice as high as any other jurisdiction in Maryland, RealtyTrac data showed. In the first nine months of last year, the county recorded 3,310 foreclosures filings.Moving Out and Up
This is not the scenario Bill Chesley envisioned for Perrywood when he bought the old Tuck Farm in 1980 with plans to transform the 540-acre expanse of land into an upscale subdivision.
In the early 1990s, bulldozers started moving ground, and soon, houses were popping up. The development near Route 202 quickly became a sought-after address, particularly among upper-middle class African Americans from elsewhere in the county and the District looking for larger homes and more convenient amenities.
At the time, the county was seeking to move its housing stock beyond the garden apartments of the 1960s and the low-cost housing of the 1970s and 1980s. The new wave of development brought about eye-popping neighborhoods such as Lake Arbor, Woodmore and Perrywood, all planned communities with big houses and big price tags.
For many who moved in, the upscale developments were proof that they had made it.
Carmen Strother moved to Perrywood four years ago from Fairmount Heights, where she said crime was so bad she would not let her children play outside. "The neighborhood is quiet," she said, noting that the Perrywood Community Association pays for security patrols. "Here, everybody has big yards."
Some have big mortgages, too. Del. Aisha N. Braveboy (D-Prince George's), who represents Perrywood, said she understands how homeowners can get into mortgage trouble. "These are people who have great incomes, but their houses are priced at a point where they can't afford them," she said.
One homeowner said she started receiving foreclosure notices shortly after her husband was killed. Now, she is trying to unload her five-bedroom house in a short sale, in which a lender agrees to take less than a house is worth to avoid the costs of foreclosure.
Another woman, an executive with the federal government who spoke on condition of anonymity, said her family worked hard to make life appear normal as they fell behind on their mortgage payments after her husband's company closed. The family has since rebounded with the help of a new job and a refinanced mortgage.
"Everybody is perpetrating, giving this impression that 'I'm living well and nothing's wrong.' Myself included," she said.Shame of Foreclosure
Real estate agents who work in Perrywood said homeowners have kept up appearances because they are too proud to let their financial distress show. "People who go through these pre-foreclosures, they mask things," said Joseph A. Bryant, an agent with Re/Max One. "They keep everything inside the four walls. People will go through hell, and you'd never know it."
The homeowners association also plays a part with its demands that properties be held to a certain standard. Mac Claxton, president of the Perrywood Community Association, said the foreclosures have not adversely affected the neighborhood. He said the association has some outstanding dues, but the reason is unclear.
Real estate agents said sales in Perrywood have been no different than in other county neighborhoods, given the housing slump.
Kimberly Mitchell, who owes $260,000 on her mortgage, said she tried to refinance at a lower rate, but lenders said her credit was not good enough.
So she put her house on the market. List price: $350,000.
Staff researchers Rena Kirsch and Meg Smith contributed to this report.