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Financial Reform Amendment Would Address Loan Modification Problems

Proposed New ‘Office of the Homeowner Advocate’

By Paul Kiel, ProPublica – May 7, 2010 11:37 am EDT

An amendment to the financial reform bill filed recently by Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., and Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, would create a special office to assist homeowners who are facing problems with the administration’s mortgage modification program. The measure has White House support [1], but is opposed by the financial services industry.

Mortgage Servicers

As we’ve reported, homeowners and housing counselors frequently complain that mortgage servicers frequently lose financial documents [2] and make mistakes [3]—mistakes that can result in foreclosure [4]. Homeowners regularly wait several months [5] for an answer on their application.

About $75 billion has been earmarked for the program from the TARP [6], but very little of that has so far been spent owing to the small number of permanent modifications so far: about 228,000 as of March [7].

The amendment proposes a new “Office of the Homeowner Advocate” that would be devoted to solving homeowner problems with the program. Right now, homeowners with complaints are told to call the HOPE Hotline, which has a staff of counselors to handle escalations—a process that’s been criticized as ineffective [8].

[picapp align=”none” wrap=”false” link=”term=mortgage+reform&iid=1896936″ src=”a/3/e/7/Jesse_Jackson_Rallies_e4dd.jpg?adImageId=12804308&imageId=1896936″ width=”380″ height=”246″ /]

Office of Homeowner Advocate

Under the amendment, all homeowner complaints about servicers would go to this new “Office of the Homeowner Advocate” within the Treasury Department. That would effectively create an appeals process for homeowners who think they’ve been wrongly denied a modification—something that housing counselors and other consumer advocates have long said is desperately needed [9].

“A mandated homeowner’s advocate, built into the process and reportable to Congress, would counteract the servicer unresponsiveness we’ve heard so much about and be able to serve as a recourse for homeowners,” said Richard H. Neiman, superintendent of banks for New York State and a member of the Congressional Oversight Panel for the TARP. Neiman has been pushing for the creation of the office.

The office would have the power to penalize servicers for noncompliance with the program‘s guidelines, but would need the sign-off from Herb Allison, the Treasury official in charge of the TARP, to do so. The Treasury currently has the power to penalize services, but so far has not done so [10].

Financial Services Industry Opposition

The idea has already garnered opposition from the financial services industry. Scott Talbott, a lobbyist with the Financial Services Roundtable, which counts the largest mortgage servicers among its many members [11], said the group opposed the amendment because it would just create “another layer of bureaucracy that could actually slow” the program’s process. He also said there is already adequate oversight of the program.

One of the watchdogs that over-sees the TARP, the Government Accountability Office, reported in March (PDF) that servicers have widely varying ways of dealing with homeowner complaints and some were not systematically tracking them. Several tracked only written ones, the GAO said. Another servicer had closely tracked only those complaints that were addressed to a company executive.

“The unnecessary problems with HAMP are found mostly with servicers who have provided inadequate, inconsistent service to homeowners and delayed or denied homeowner assistance on a mass basis,” said Alys Cohen of the National Consumer Law Center.

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Assessment

The amendment has support from Americans for Financial Reform [12] and a host of consumer advocate groups, including the Center for Responsible Lending, the Service Employees International Union and the United Auto Workers.

The amendment also specifies that any candidate for the homeowner advocate position would have to come from an advocacy background and cannot have worked for a servicer or the Treasury in the previous four years. The advocate’s office would be funded out of the TARP and close down after the federal program ends. The idea is modeled after the Internal Revenue Service’s “taxpayer advocate.” [13] It’s not clear when the amendment might come up for a vote.

Link: http://www.propublica.org/ion/loan-mods/item/financial-reform-amendment-would-address-loan-mod-problems-with-homeowner-a

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Disorganization at Banks

Causing Mistaken Foreclosures

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By Paul Kiel, ProPublica – May 4, 2010 9:20 pm EDT

Millions of people face losing their homes in the continuing foreclosure crisis, but homeowners often have more than the struggling economy and slumping house prices to worry about: Disorganization within the big banks that service mortgages has made a bad problem worse.

ProPublica is matching local journalists with homeowners having trouble getting loan mods.

Are you a homeowner with a story to tell?
Are you a reporter and want to cover it?

Sometimes the communication breakdown within the banks is so complete that it leads to premature or mistaken foreclosures. Some homeowners, with the help of an attorney or housing counselor, have eventually been able to reverse a foreclosure. Others have lost their homes.

“We believe in many cases people are losing their homes when they should not have,” said Kevin Stein, associate director of the California Reinvestment Coalition, which counts dozens of nonprofits that work with homeowners among its members.

In the worst breakdowns, banks — and other companies that service loans — actually work at cross-purposes, with one arm of the company foreclosing on the home while the other offers help. Servicers say such mistakes are rare and result from the high volume of defaults and foreclosures.

The problems happen even among servicers participating in the administration’s $75 billion foreclosure-prevention program [1]. Servicers operating under the year-old program are forbidden from auctioning someone’s home while a modification decision is pending. It happens anyway.

Consumer advocates say the lapses continue because they go unpunished. “We’ve had too much of the carrot, and we need a stick,” Stein says. The Treasury Department has yet to penalize a servicer for breaking the program’s rules. The program provides federal subsidies to encourage modifications.

Treasury officials overseeing the program say they’re aware of the problems and have moved to fix them. But some states are going further to protect homeowners, with recent rules that stop the foreclosure process if the homeowner requests a modification.

Many homeowners, seeing no other option, have gone to court to reclaim their homes. At least 50 homeowners have recently filed lawsuits alleging the servicer foreclosed with a loan mod request pending or even while they were on a payment plan.

Homeowners have long waits for help

In good times, banks and other servicers — Bank of America is the biggest, followed by Chase and Wells Fargo — were known mainly to homeowners simply as where they sent their monthly mortgage payments. But the companies have been deluged over the past couple of years by requests for help from millions of struggling homeowners.

Homeowners commonly wait six months for an answer on a loan mod application. The federal program for encouraging loan mods includes a three-month trial period, after which servicers are supposed to decide whether to make the modifications permanent. But some homeowners have waited as long as 10 months [2] for a final answer.

Communication breakdowns occur because of the way the servicers are structured. One division typically deals with modifications and another with foreclosures. Servicers also hire a local trustee or attorney to actually pursue foreclosure.

“Often they just simply don’t communicate with each other,” said Laurie Maggiano, the Treasury official in charge of setting policy for the modification program. Such problems were particularly bad last summer, in the first few months of the program, she said. “Basically, you have the right hand at the mortgage company not knowing what the left hand is doing,” said Mark Pearce, North Carolina’s deputy commissioner of banks. Communication glitches and mistakes are “systemic, more than anecdotal” among mortgage servicers, he said.

“We’ve had cases where we’ve informed the mortgage company that they’re about to foreclose on someone.” The experience for the homeowner, he said, can be “Kafkaesque.”

“We’re all human, and the servicers are overworked and trying their best,” said Vicki Vidal, of the Mortgage Bankers Association. She said foreclosure errors are rare, particularly if struggling homeowners are prompt in contacting their servicer.

The Human Face

Frances Gomez, of Tempe, Ariz., lived in her house for over 30 years. Three years ago, she refinanced it with Countrywide, now part of Bank of America, for nearly $300,000. The home’s value has declined dramatically, said Gomez, who put some of the money from the refinancing into her hair salon.

Last year, the recession forced her to close her shop. Gomez fell behind on her mortgage, and after striking out with a company that promised to work with Bank of America to get her a loan mod, she learned in December that her home was scheduled for foreclosure.

So Gomez applied herself. She twice succeeded in getting Bank of America to postpone the sale date and said she was assured it would not happen until her application was reviewed. Gomez had opened a smaller salon and understood there was a good chance she would qualify.

She was still waiting in March when a Realtor, representing the new owner of her home, showed up. Her house had sold at auction — for less than half of what Gomez owed. “They don’t give you an opportunity,” she said. “They just go and do it with no warning.”

It’s not supposed to work that way.

Federal Programs

Under the federal program, which requires servicers to follow a set of guidelines for modifications, servicers must give borrowers a written denial before foreclosing. When Gomez called Bank of America about the sale, she said she was told there was a mistake but nothing could be done. She did get a denial notice [3] — some three weeks after the house was sold and just days before she was evicted.

“I just want people to know what they’re doing,” Gomez, now living with family members, said.

After being contacted by ProPublica, Bank of America reviewed Gomez’s case. Bank spokesman Rick Simon acknowledged that Gomez might not have been told her house would be sold and that the bank made a mistake in denying Gomez, because it did not take into account the income from her new salon business. Simon said a Bank of America representative would seek to negotiate with the new owner of Gomez’s house to see if the sale could be unwound.

Simon said the bank regrets when such mistakes happen due to the “very high volume” of cases and that any errors in Gomez’s case were “inadvertent.”

Timeline: How Michael Hill Almost Lost His Home [4]

Even avoiding a mistaken sale can also be a stressful process.

One day in February, a man approached Ron Bermudez of Emeryville, Calif., in front of his house and told him his home would be sold in a few hours. This came as a shock to Bermudez; Bank of America had told him weeks prior that he’d been approved for a trial modification and the papers would soon arrive. He made a panicked phone call to an attorney, who was able to make sure there was no auction.

Last November, Michael Hill of Lexington, S.C., finally got the call he’d been waiting for. Congratulations, a rep from JPMorgan Chase told him, your trial mortgage modification is approved. Hill’s monthly payment, around $900, would be nearly halved.

Except there was a problem. Chase had foreclosed on Hill’s home a month earlier, and his family was just days away from eviction.

“I listened to her and then I just said, ‘Well, that sounds good,’” recalled Hill, who is married and has two children. “‘Tell me how we’re going to do this, seeing as how you sold the house.’” That, he found out, was news to Chase.

Hill was able to avoid eviction — for now. Chase reversed the sale by paying the man who’d bought the home an extra $19,500 on top of the $86,000 [5] he’d paid at the auction.

After the mistaken foreclosure, he began the trial modification last December. He made those payments, but two months after his trial period was supposed to end, Hill is still waiting for a final answer from Chase.

The miscommunications have continued. He received a letter in January saying that he’d been approved for a permanent modification, but he was then told he’d received it in error.

His family remains partially packed, ready to move should the modification not go through. “I’m on pins and needles every time someone’s knocking on the door or calling,” he said.

Christine Holevas, a Chase spokeswoman, said that Chase had “agreed with Hill’s request to rescind the foreclosure” and was “now reviewing his loan for permanent modification.” She said Chase services “more than 10 million mortgages — the vast majority without a hitch.”

HOPE Hotline

To contest a foreclosure under the federal program, Maggiano, the Treasury official, said a homeowner should call the HOPE Hotline, 888-995-HOPE, a Treasury Department-endorsed hotline staffed by housing counselors. Those counselors can escalate the case if the servicer still won’t correct the problem, she said.

That escalation process has saved “a number” of homeowners from being wrongfully booted out of their homes, Maggiano said. Hill, the South Carolina homeowner, is an example of someone helped by the HOPE Hotline.

Of course, the homeowner must know about the hotline to call it. Gomez, the Arizona homeowner who lost her home to foreclosure, said she’d never heard of it.

Many homeowner advocates say the government’s effort has been largely ineffective at resolving problems with servicers.

“I uniformly hear from attorneys and counseling advocates on the ground that the HOPE Hotline simply parrots back what the servicers have said,” said Alys Cohen, an attorney with the National Consumer Law Center. Cohen said she’d voiced her concerns with Treasury officials, who indicated they’d make improvements.

Bank

New rules to offer more protection

Under the current rules for the federal program, servicers have been barred from conducting a foreclosure sale if the homeowner requested a modification, but are allowed to push along the process, even set a sale date. That allows them to foreclose more quickly if they determine the homeowner doesn’t qualify for a modification.

As a result, a homeowner might get a modification offer one day and a foreclosure notice the next. As of March, servicers were pursuing foreclosure on 1.8 million residences, according to LPS Applied Analytics.

Maggiano, the Treasury official, said that’s been confusing for homeowners. Some “just got discouraged and gave up.”

New rules issued by the Treasury in March say the servicer must first give the homeowner a shot at a modification before beginning the process that leads to foreclosure.

They also require the servicer to adopt new policies to prevent mishaps. For instance, the servicer will be required to provide a written certification to its attorney or trustee that the homeowner does not qualify for the federal program before the house can be sold.

Maggiano said the changes resulted from visits to the servicers’ offices last December that allowed Treasury officials to “much better understand (their) inner workings.”

The rules, however, don’t take effect until June. Nor do they apply to hundreds of thousands of homeowners seeking a modification for whom the process leading to foreclosure has already begun. And Treasury has yet to set any penalties for servicers who don’t follow the rules.

Maggiano said Treasury’s new rule struck a balance to help homeowners who were responsive to servicer communications to stay out of foreclosure while not introducing unnecessary delays for servicers. Some borrowers don’t respond at all to offers of help from the servicers until they’re faced with foreclosure, she said.

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States Differ

Some states, such as North Carolina, have recently gone further to delay moving toward foreclosure if a homeowner requests a modification. State regulators there passed a law that requires a servicer to halt the process if a homeowner requests a modification.

Pearce, the North Carolina official, said the rule was prompted by the delays homeowners have been facing and puts the burden on the servicers to expeditiously review the request. “They’re in total control.”

Stopping the process not only removes the possibility of a sudden foreclosure, he said, but also stops the accumulation of fees, which build up and can add thousands to the homeowner’s debt as the servicer moves toward foreclosure.

In California, state Sen. Mark Leno, a Democrat from San Francisco, is pushing a bill that would do something similar. The servicers “should be working a lot harder to keep homeowners in their home,” he said.

Assessment

Original article: http://www.propublica.org/feature/disorganization-at-banks-causing-mistaken-foreclosures-050410

Conclusion

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Geithner Talks Tough about Banks’ Loan Modification Efforts

But – More Bark Than Bite

By Paul Kiel, ProPublica – April 30, 2010 11:30 am EDT

For nearly a year now, we at ProPublica have been reporting on the problems [1] homeowners have encountered when seeking a mortgage modification [2] under the administration’s program [3].

Yesterday, Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner for the first time acknowledged the depths of the problems, but didn’t offer any new solutions. He committed to release more detailed data on how banks and other servicers are faring—a promise Treasury first made six months ago.

Geithner Speaks

“We are concerned by the wide variation in performance we see across servicers and by the countless frustrated phone calls we receive from borrowers,” Geithner testified yesterday before Congress. He added that the Treasury was “troubled” by “reports that servicers have foreclosed on potentially eligible homeowners” and frequent complaints from homeowners that servicers lose their documents. He said servicers are “not doing enough to help homeowners” and that it was not “acceptable.”

From the Treasury Department

This isn’t the first time Treasury Department officials have directed some tough talk [4] at servicers, including vague threats [5] of penalties [6]. But it remains to be seen whether, as Geithner says, the Treasury will follow through and punish servicers that break the program’s rules. Under the program, which involves paying incentives to servicers, investors and homeowners to encourage modifications, the Treasury has the power to punish servicers by withholding those payments. But Treasury has never issued any such penalties. Nor has the government outlined how much such penalties might be.

Geithner did promise to publish within a month or two more detailed information about each servicer’s performance, data that could give a much clearer picture of how servicers are treating homeowners. Treasury officials have actually been promising to release this sort of data since last year [7]. In December, Herb Allison, the official in charge of the TARP, said [8] it would be released in January. Like everything else with the government’s loan mod program, it’s taken several months longer than it was supposed to.

More Granular Data

The new, more detailed data will show how long it takes each servicer to answer calls from homeowners, how long they take to process applications, and the number of customer complaints each receives. A Treasury spokeswoman also said the reports will provide some sort of breakdown of how many people have been denied mods for which reasons, but it’s not clear yet if that data will be made available by servicer.

Up until now, the Treasury has only been releasing basic information for each of the largest servicers. And each month, we’ve transformed that data into an easy-to-digest breakdown [9].

Assessment

One major problem, the data show, has been the large volume of homeowners in limbo (376,000 as of March). A trial period under the program is supposed to last three months, but for those homeowners, it’s stretched longer, sometimes as long as ten months [6]. In total, 1.2 million homeowners have started trials since the program launched a year ago, but only 231,000 have made it to a permanent modification.

Link: http://www.propublica.org/ion/bailout/item/geithner-talks-tough-about-banks-loan-mod-efforts-but-more-bark-than-bite

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