Recession and unemployment are causing increasing numbers of Washington-area residents to fall behind in their mortgage payments, and individual cases have surfaced in which some financial institutions appear ready to take advantage of the situation to foreclose unprofitable low-interest loans.
In the District, foreclosure notices have been steadily increasing, rising from 1,656 notices in 1978 to 2,513 in the first 11 months of 1981. According to the Mortgage Bankers Association, 7.5 percent of the District's mortgage holders were at least 30 days late in their mortgage payments in the third quarter of last year, compared to 6.05 percent a year earlier. Housing counselors have also noted significant increases in mortgage delinquencies in the Maryland and Virginia suburbs.
Area bankers deny there is any pattern of foreclosures on unprofitable loans. Mortgage Bankers Association statistics as well as housing counselors' observations confirm that even where financial institutions have a clear legal right to foreclose, most banks and savings and loans institutions still make strong efforts to help customers solve their payment problems rather than calling in loans.
But individuals report there are exceptions to this banking forbearance, and some area residents said in interviews they were shocked to discover they could lose their homes--or at least their low-interest mortgages--if financial institutions decide to get tough.
A divorced woman supporting six children lost her 8 percent mortgage after what she said was a one-month default but which the S&L says was longer. A McLean businessman says his bank forced him to renegotiate a 5 1/2 percent mortgage to a 14 percent rate after he discovered belatedly that one of his monthly checks had bounced without his knowledge. And two Maryland women said separately that their banks had threatened to foreclose if their low-interest loans became 60 days delinquent--threats that officials at both banks deny having made.
These cases involve conventional loans made before to the mid-1970s that do not have the protections for homeowners that are now standard in most mortgage agreements. Most lenders since 1975 have used standard forms from the Federal Home Loan Mortgage Corp. and the Federal National Mortgage Association that require the lender to accept overdue payments and reasonable legal fees up to five days before a foreclosure sale and to reinstate the mortgage at its original interest rate.
In addition, all Federal Housing Administration (FHA) and Veterans Administration (VA) mortgages carry clauses that allow payments of the defaulted amount up to the time of foreclosure.
Most older loans offer no such protection. In most such cases, if a mortgage holder misses even one payment, the lender has the right to foreclose on the loan.
Mortgage delinquencies, traditionally the last gasp of a family's failing financial situation, are no longer primarily a low-income occurrence here but increasingly involve more middle-class homeowners.
"We used to deal just with low-income people," said Carmelita Edwards, who has worked for 10 years at the Housing Counseling Service in the District. "Now we deal with the middle classand even the upper. Some of these people made $40,000 a year."
The reasons for defaults vary with each individual, but many now are tied to lost jobs or reduced income because of the recession. Ted Cook of McLean, for example, said his business was slack because most of his clients have cut back on advertising and marketing due to slumps in their own businesses. In addition, the value of his stock portfolio had fallen, and he had to pay college tuition or pull his children out of school.
The regional office of the Department of Housing and Urban Development, which deals with defaults on FHA mortgages in the area, already is getting calls from employes at the departments of Labor, Agriculture and Justice asking what will happen to their mortgages if they are laid off at the beginning of this year and cannot pay, an official said.
This official, who asked not to be named, said that he is seeing more delinquencies among middle-income persons and a big increase in defaults on new mortgages, some only four or five months old. "A lot of people got caught in the rapid rise of interest rates," he said. Some may have bought when rates were 12 or 13 percent, but by the time they closed the rates had risen to 14 1/2 to 15 1/2 percent, meaning the monthly payments increased from perhaps $500 to $750.
With FHA and VA mortgages, delinquent borrowers can be allowed to join government-sponsored programs, by which they may have as long as three years to pay past-due bills, if they had a good reason for not paying. There are 14 HUD-endorsed housing counseling agencies in the Washington area that help people who have defaulted on mortgages.
Tracy Scott, a housing counseler at Prince George's United Communities Against Poverty, one of the HUD-endorsed housing counseling services in the area, said this year the reasons for defaults seem "structural, not individual," that is, they are being caused by massive layoffs and not just because someone got sick and couldn't pay.
"This year we are seeing more and more people who are falling behind because they have lost their jobs," she said, both with the federal government and in the private sector. Construction workers "are really a problem now" because of the depressed housing market, even more so than could be attributed to seasonal layoffs. The group also has counseled several truck drivers, she said, speculating that with retail sales off more of them are losing their jobs.
Some young career couples are having more problems than before, particularly with today's high interest rates raising mortgage payments. Many of these were not overextended to begin with, but couldn't handle the payments when one or both lost their jobs, Scott said.
"These people looked like they were on a safe track--then they got zapped," she added.
The Washington Post interviewed several individuals who have lost either their homes or their low-interest mortgages in recent months. Among them were the following cases, all involving individuals whose loans did not include the protections adopted by most lenders in the mid-70s. These people don't claim to have been perfect mortgage payers and accept blame for not paying on time, but all say they were willing and able to pay all their back debts within a few months.
Linda Kelley, a divorced Maryland woman who had just been promoted to a GS 12 position at the Agriculture Department and was supporting six children, four of them as a foster parent. She had been delinquent before on her payments, but she said she was only in default for one month on her 8 percent loan when the S&L started foreclosure proceedings. It would not accept a certified check for the amount past due or renegotiate, she said.
Only after going to Prince George's County Executive Lawrence Hogan's office was she able to win an extension of the time she had to refinance with another lender to 30 days, Kelley said. Finally she had to get a $24,000 personal loan from a friend and then refinance at a higher rate with another lender.
Ted Cook owns his own advertising and marketing firm and lives in a $200,000 house in McLean. He calls himself a "chronic delinquent" but says he never got so far behind that the bank warned him he was in trouble or even charged him a late fee in the 10 years he had had his mortgage. Then one of his mortgage checks bounced--but he said he was never aware of it. He kept making monthly payments, he said, not knowing that his bank's records showed him repeatedly one month behind.
When he became aware of the problem, he said he tried to pay off what he owed but the bank insisted instead that he turn over the remainder of his 5 1/2 percent loan for a 14 percent mortgage with the same lender, plus pay $1,300 in legal fees.
"They can do any damn thing they want. They could charge me $2,300 as easily as $1,300," Cook said, acknowledging he "didn't have a leg to stand on" legally on the default itself. "They had no reason to compromise, and they didn't."
* Willie L. Lee, a Clinton cab driver with four children, reports an experience similar to Cook's, involving a bounced check he says he was unaware of for some months. Lee said he had to file for bankruptcy and pay $906 in court fees to keep his 8 percent mortgage after he defaulted for two months and his S&L would not accept his check for the arrears.
* Edna and Jerry Jewell of Kensington were two months behind when the S&L started foreclosure proceedings. A repayment plan called for them to make three payments in November, and they made only one. On Dec. 3, the S&L refused to accept their certified check for the total amount due. The foreclosure proceedings are continuing on the Jewells' 8 3/4 percent mortgage.
Both Lee and Jewell acknowledged they had been late with their payments several times before the incidents that sparked the foreclosure proceedings.
In all of these cases, there is no question that the lenders acted within their legal rights.
Kelley, Lee and Jewell were borrowers at Maryland Federal Savings and Loan. Maryland Federal Chairman T. Hammond Welsh Jr. called some of the cases "the skim milk at the bottom of the barrel" in terms of their credit records, and said the S&L had tolerated much in the way of previous delinquencies in each case. In Kelley's case, he said, "I'm a little ashamed that we let her get away with it for years."
Welsh said he sent one delinquent payer a letter mentioning the low-interest on the loan and that the S&L could foreclose after 30 days. But Welsh said that, far from being a threat, this was meant as good advice for people to protect a good thing.
Welsh says that his S&L now generally uses the Federal Home Loan Mortgage Corporation form and said that if these had been used when Jewell, Lee and Kelley obtained their mortgages, they could have paid the arrears and kept their loans.
Cook's lender, National Savings & Trust Co. (NS&T), real estate officer Luis Estefani said he could not comment without Cook's file, which he said was with the bank's lawyer. The lawyer said he could not comment because it is a confidential matter.
Two Maryland women, with good payment records for years, experienced problems recently and say they were told they might face prompt foreclosures.
Charlotte Pochel of Bethesda, 73, a part-time legal secretary, said she missed her November payment because she was in the hospital for two weeks having hip surgery. Pochel said she received a warning notice and called her bank, National Capital Bank of Washington. Short on cash, she was not sure how soon she could return to work to earn the mortgage money and asked what would happen if she could not pay.
Pochel said she was told the bank wouldn't "carry" a note like hers, a 7 percent mortgage she has had with National Capital Bank for 10 years, but would foreclose immediately if she defaulted one more month.
"It's like having the wolf at the door all the time. It seems like they are just waiting," Pochel said. She said the bank official who warned her of foreclosure was a Mr. Didden.
But George Didden, National Capital president and chairman of the board, called Pochel's story "ridiculous." He said he is the only one who sets mortgage policy at the bank and that he did not talk with Pochel. None of the other four Diddens at the bank--his sons--spoke with her on this occasion either, he said.
When told of what Pochel had said, Didden called her a "chronic problem . . . [who] is always talking [to bank employes] about going to the hospital." (The chief nurse of the Sibley Hospital unit where Pochel stayed confirmed that Pochel had her hip replaced in November.)
Didden said his bank has only had three foreclosures in the last 25 years and that, if circumstances warrant it, the bank will carry a mortgage delinquent indefinitely.
Another Maryland woman reports a similar experience with another financial institution. Constance Pitchell, a Chevy Chase free-lance writer and editor who says her business is in "real trouble" because of government cutbacks, called her S&L to ask what it would do with her 7 1/4 percent mortgage if she could not pay. She had never been delinquent in 10 years with the institution.
According to Pitchell, National Permanent Savings and Loan Vice President Richard Williams told her that after two months the savings and loan would foreclose and would not make any arrangements for making up arrears then because "we want to get rid of people in your loan interest bracket."
Williams said he did speak with Pitchell but did not make such a statement to her.
"Naturally we want to get rid of those loans, but it's not our policy" to treat them differently in case of default, Williams said. "No doubt she was told her loan can be called due. It may have been a collection tool, to help people help themselves to keep a good credit rating."
Michael Blaher, legislative specialist at the D.C. consumer protection office, said a D.C. Court of Appeals decision this year took mortgages out of the hands of that office and now no city agency oversees foreclosures or other home loan practices.
The city's only foreclosure statute was originally passed in 1901 and has been revised only slightly since, so it does not deal adequately with today's typical mortgages, Blaher said.
"We need a whole new approach, or at least [the law] needs to be rewritten," he said. The consumer protection office hopes to get legislation introduced in the City Council soon to restore its jurisdiction over mortgages, said Blaher.