Washington area bankers, weary of waiting for the local housing market to revive, are moving in unusually high numbers to foreclose on condominium projects in the city.
Foreclosure on such developments has traditionally been a last resort, with financial institutions reluctant to take on the burden of managing the property and preferring instead to try to help developers work out their problems.
But last month seven notices of foreclosure were filed, compared to what real estate sources estimate were a total of 12 to 15 condominium foreclosures in all of 1982. The foreclosures have been completed on two of the seven projects notified in January, with two pending and three more delayed by bankruptcy petitions filed by other creditors of the projects.
"It's not that the banks are getting impatient, but that the banks and the builders don't see the projects reviving again." said Paul Hammond, senior vice president at National Savings and Trust.
After three boom years, the condominium market collapsed in 1982, the victim of record-high interest rates. As sales evaporated, developers were caught in the middle, owing construction loans with interest rates of up to 20 percent while finding few condominium buyers able to afford mortgage interest rates of up to 16 percent.
As a result, some developers found themselves unable to repay their construction loans. At first, according to many in the banking community, lenders tried to work out new agreements with their borrowers to keep afloat the projects they had financed.
Area bankers said they tried to avert foreclosures because they are in the business of lending money for one to two years to finance the construction or renovation of condominium buildings, not the business of managing foreclosed real estate.
Both the bankers and the developers thought relief had arrived last August when Federal Housing Administration and Veterans Administration mortgage interest rates fell from 15.5 percent to 12 percent, and conventional rates declined from 17 percent to 13.5 percent.
Both sides expected that decline to fuel condominium purchases, giving the developers the income they needed to help repay the loans. But the rates apparently did not drop enough to impress most would-be condominium buyers, and the market remained flat.
Some projects sold so few units that they virtually became high-rise ghost towns. More and more lenders found themselves with outstanding multi-million-dollar loans on which they had collected little or no interest for several months.
"I think the forebearance was exhausted as the lenders saw the lowering of rates did not help the distressed projects," said Bill Hollar, senior vice president at the National Bank of Washington. "Now it is clear that the rates have decreased but not enough."
The upswing in foreclosures appears confined to the city, where condominium prices average substantially higher than prices in the suburbs.
Only 45 condominium units were sold in the District in December, according to Housing Data Reports, a local firm that collects sales information on new or renovated housing developments. That is the fewest number of sales in years, according to bankers.
"People are not buying," said C. Jackson Ritchie, president of First American Bank and the D.C. Bankers Association. "There is still limited consumer confidence."
And the banks have begun to move, foreclosing on projects containing a total of 207 unsold units. The seven projects notified of foreclosure proceedings last month are:
* The Papermill, on the Georgetown waterfront, developed by Ronald (Mickey) Nocera and financed by First National Bank of Maryland;
* Bishop's Gate, 1715 15th St. NW, developed by the Urban Land Co., headed by Joseph D. Marsh and Richard J. Guerard, and financed by Standard Federal Savings and Loan of Gaithersburg;
* The Hastings, 4444 Connecticut Ave. NW, developed by Elliott L. Burka and Alan S. Landau and financed by the National Bank of Washington and Standard Federal Savings and Loan of Gaithersburg;
* The Downing & Vaux, 30th and Q Sts. NW, developed by George H. Walker of Washington, Richard Nadeau of Camp Strings, Md. and Holland Investments, and financed by First National Bank of Virginia;
* Jones Court in Georgetown, also developed by The Urban Land Co. and financed by a group of private investors;
* The Copperfield, 2901 16th St. NW, developed by Paul Fainbraun, Robert W. Coburn and Leigh Hantho, and financed by American Security Bank, and
* 413-429 17th St. NE, developed by John M. Swagart and John M. Swargart Jr., and financed by a group of private investors.
The developers in most of the projects declined to comment on the foreclosures. Patrick Moran, an attorney for Marsh and Guerrard, said Standard Federal Savings and Loan of Gaithersburg had effectively controlled the Bishop's Gate project since March of last year, and that the project had run into trouble because of high interest rates coupled with low sales.
The lack of sales is the usual reason for foreclosures but there are other more subtle ingredients such as whether there is more than one lender involved in the project and the attitude and financial well-being of the developer.
When two or more banks share a construction loan, "complications can arise--conflicts come sometimes that only be resolved in a foreclosure," said NBW's Hollar.
"It's only natural that in a distress situation you have differences of opinion," he said, on subjects such as how to better sell the units, whether to spend money by offering below-market mortgage rates to attract prospective buyers, and how to complete a project. He declined to comment on whether such disagreements influenced the decision by his bank and Standard Federal Savings and Loan of Gaithersburg to foreclose on The Hastings.
Sometimes the disagreements are between the bank and the developer over strategy for salvaging a building. "You have tried to work together but you reach a point," where the two sides disagree Ritchie said, "and the developer is not as cooperative as he has been and you must take the property back to protect your investment."
Hammond said some projects could not withstand the severe downturn in sales because some developers did not have the personal financial backing to support a project through a long period of low income, and he said bankers are partly to blame for not forecasting a market downturn accurately.
"Some builders were too thin to start with," he said. "They could not take any adversity."