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Interfaith group enlists banks in mortgage crisis

Members from more than 40 religious institutions across Northern Virginia are asking some of the country’s largest banks to commit to helping rebuild neighborhoods that have been devastated by housing foreclosures.

Virginians Organized for Interfaith Community Engagement (VOICE) drew a crowd of about 900 congregants, political leaders and representatives of two major financial institutions — Bank of America and J.P. Morgan Chase — to Freedom High School in Woodbridge on Sunday to discuss the issue.

Leaders of the two-year-old interfaith group — representing every major religion — say they hope that pressure on banks from area congregations helps struggling homeowners and assists in rebuilding neighborhoods.

Venus Miller, a VOICE leader who attends Mount Olive Baptist Church in Woodbridge, said she hopes the banks agree to help because it is the right thing to do. “But wouldn’t that be great to put the fear of God in them?”

Bank of America, one of the area’s largest lenders and mortgage holders, agreed to the group’s request that banks finance housing counselors, who would negotiate for modified mortgage payments on behalf of homeowners. Kenneth Wade, a Bank of America executive, told the gathering that the bank would dedicate $216,000 to pay for three housing counselors for Prince William County.

Wade said the bank is “looking forward to working with” the leaders on the group’s other request that the financial institutions commit between $300 million and $500 million to refinance underwater mortgages, build affordable housing and rebuild home ownership.

Just less than half of all homes are “underwater” in Prince William — meaning that borrowers owe more than their homes are worth, according to CoreLogic, which researches and analyzes real estate trends. Thousands of homeowners are behind on payments, meaning those homes could be headed for foreclosure.

Jerry McCoy, a J.P. Morgan Chase vice president, said his company would hold a mortgage refinancing event in late November.

VOICE’s leader, the Rev. Clyde Ellis, said that despite the commitments there is still much work to be done. “We get a reaction because we’re willing to agitate organized money,” he said.

Sen. Mark R. Warner (D-Va.), who attended the meeting, said he would try to engage other banks and the Obama administration in working with VOICE.

The White House rolled out a new proposal last week that would help underwater mortgage holders pay less monthly, but Warner said that program may help just a fraction of those who want and need help.

Tamara Williams, a homeowner who attended the event, said she fought with her mortgage company for two years, eventually getting an agreement with then-Countrywide Financial to modify her payments. But making her payments on time at the reduced rate soon landed her in hot water — the bank told her she no longer qualified for the refinancing program and began to foreclose.

In April, she filed for bankruptcy and has been able to stay in her home. Williams said she showed up Sunday to hold banks accountable.

“Pushed to the limit, you have to take some action,” she said.

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