Troubled homeowners wrestle with loan holders

Larry O. Doss Monday, August 17, 2009

Troubled homeowners wrestle with loan holders

By Kevin G. Hall

WASHINGTON – Nearly three years into the deepest U.S. housing slump in generations, lenders are modifying only a small number of problem mortgages, and rising foreclosures are restraining the economy’s recovery.

The Obama administration has stepped up pressure on lenders and their mortgage servicers, who act as bill collectors on behalf of investors who own mortgage bonds. The administration on Aug. 4 unveiled the first of what will be monthly "name and shame" exercises, publishing data on the loan-modification efforts of about three dozen companies.

McClatchy’s Washington Bureau received calls and e-mails from borrowers across the nation in response to a recent story about the "name and shame" effort. In subsequent interviews with them, a common theme emerged: Virtually all say they were encouraged, directly or indirectly, by their lenders to fall behind on their mortgage payments in order to qualify for loan modifications. Then the modifications never came.

These borrowers burned through retirement savings, destroyed their credit ratings and suffered mental and financial hardship. Here are two of their stories:


Phil Stubblefield, 61, arrived in loan-modification hell quite by accident. His ex-wife died of heart failure April 20, and her Sacramento home and Countrywide mortgage passed to their daughters, one of whom was in college and the other starting medical school. As students, each had limited income.

Stubblefield reached out in May to Bank of America, which had bought Countrywide in January 2008, as it faced a bankruptcy filing because of problems with its loan portfolio. Stubblefield sought to modify the loan on the property in order to stay current amid unusual circumstances.

"Virtue was met with no help at all. The only recommendation was, ’We can help you when the loan goes into default,’ " said Stubblefield, an Amtrak train conductor in California’s capital. "That’s when I said, ’That’s easy; then they’ll talk to us.’ "

After the mortgage payment became two months late in June, the girls started receiving what Stubblefield dubs "nasty-grams." Getting authorization to speak for his daughters, he tried to negotiate a lower interest rate to reduce payments enough for him to help, or to have some portion of the loan forgiven.

"I was waiting for them to turn around and say, ’What can you do for us?’ There was no coming together, no negotiation," he said. "It was ’Sell the house,’ and that’s when I came back and said, ’Don’t you read the newspapers? There are 40,000 foreclosures in Sacramento and a 19-month turnaround on (real estate) listings.’ "

What especially irks Stubblefield, who worked for eight years as a mortgage broker, are the comments from lenders that they’re doing everything possible to keep people in their homes and out of foreclosure.

"It comes off to me that it’s just window dressing and speech that doesn’t translate to anything," he said. "No action."

Stubblefield’s ex-wife had a mortgage payment of about $1,850 a month, more than half of her take-home income from a state government job. Until lending standards became unhinged from 2004 to 2007, conventional wisdom was that lenders wouldn’t underwrite loans with payments that exceeded 35 percent of borrowers’ take-home pay.

"They put her in a loan to begin with that was guaranteed to fail," Stubblefield said.

A Bank of America spokesman took Stubblefield’s loan information from McClatchy but didn’t comment.


A work-from-home psychotherapist and Realtor, Helen Rudinsky, who’s now 53, bought property in the nation’s capital in June 2004. At the height of the housing boom, she took out an interest-only loan, offered for pricier homes and marketed as virtually risk-free because of climbing home values.

A few years later, she gave birth to a boy who was diagnosed with autism. She has temporarily moved to Bend, Ore., seeking easier access to expensive testing and therapy for her child.

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