Congressional Staffers Fight Banks

By Luke Broadwater, The Baltimore Sun

Inside a small cubicle in Timonium, Jessica Gatton Facini is saving homes.

The 26-year-old sorts through foreclosure and lien documents from Baltimore homeowners, identifies a problem and then navigates the bureaucracy of big banks and government agencies in search of a solution.

It’s a challenging task — some homeowners would say impossible — but Facini wields a weapon most Marylanders do not.

When she contacts a bank, her caller I.D. says “U.S. Congress.”

As part of a little-known effort, congressional staffers across the country have been calling banks relentlessly to bargain for help for homeowners. In response, some of the country’s biggest financial entities, such as Wells Fargo and Bank of America, have even set up special lines to field the congressional staffer members’ calls.

Often, Facini says, she can negotiate a way for a homeowner to stay in his or her home. But sometimes there’s nothing that can be done.

“I essentially serve as the middleman,” she says. “A lot of foreclosures happen because someone lost a job or have debts as part of a medical condition. There are some we can’t help, and it’s heartbreaking.”

Since the subprime mortgage crisis took down the U.S. housing market — and rocked the nation’s economy as a whole — Congress has ramped up efforts to stem the tide of foreclosures.

Foreclosures depress property values. In Baltimore, vacant homes mean the spread of blight and crime.

Mortgage firms have foreclosed on more than 50,000 homes in Maryland since the final peak days of the housing bubble in January 2006, according to real estate data firm CoreLogic. That’s about 23 homes per day. More than 20,000 of those completed foreclosures — 40 percent — were on homes in the Baltimore metro area.

Meanwhile, the state has the second-highest rate of borrowers who are behind on their mortgage payments by 90 days or more and not yet in foreclosure, at 4.7 percent, according to the Mortgage Bankers Association.

Facini works for U.S. Rep. C. A. Dutch Ruppersberger, one of several Maryland congressmen who meet with area residents about preventing foreclosures. Sometimes hundreds of people pack the rooms, looking for advice.

“With this terrible economy, people that need help, they don’t know where to go,” Ruppersberger says. “They’re calling us because they need help.”

Facini says she has worked on nearly 600 cases personally. Rep. Elijah Cummings’ office, which coverages a larger swath of Baltimore, has averaged about 2,000 foreclosure cases a year since 2009.

Even with special lines approved for congressional workers, Facini says, she still faces the same frustrations that homeowners do when the tries to deal with some large institutions. She spends much of her time on hold, listening to elevator music.

“Jessica is a master in getting things done,” Ruppersberger says. “She’s tenacious.”

One of those Facini helped is Dorothy Artis, a 63-year-old former teacher who nearly lost her house over an unpaid water bill.

A resident of Northeast Baltimore, Artis attended one of Ruppersberger’s foreclosure workshops and later explained her problems to the congressional staffers.

She was laid off from her job with Prince George’s County schools in 2008. Her daughter also lost her job and moved in to Artis’ Northeast Baltimore home with her son.

Then a pipe in Artis’ house sprang a leak.

Her water bill jumped from $30 to hundreds. She fixed the pipe, but the bills kept coming.

“It was obvious that the water bill was really high,” she said. “They were estimating. They estimate the payments according to your highest amount. They were still basing it on your high payments.”

She called City Hall, hoping to get the payments reduced, only to be passed around, she says, from staffer to staffer. “Nobody knew what the other person was doing,” she says.

After several months, Artis owed close to $10,000. A lien was placed on her home. That’s when she reached out to Ruppersberger’s office.

“I didn’t want to have my house up for tax sale because of something silly,” Artis said. “They overcharged me for the water and then wouldn’t credit me for the repairs.”

Facini negotiated a credit for overbilling and arranged a more reasonable payment plan than the city had been demanding.

“They would have took my house,” Artis said. “They only resolved it because the congressman stepped in. The only time you get some assistance is when you go to the top, like to the congressman. It shouldn’t have to be that way.”

At Cummings’ office, about 8,700 people since 2009 have sought the congressman’s help with their mortgages. Another 5,000 have attended his foreclosure prevention seminars.

The staff has been able to help about 70 percent of those avoid foreclosure, a spokesman said.

Sometimes homeowners have lost a key document. Or the lender has misplaced it. Sometimes the homeowner is actually current on the mortgage, but the bank isn’t properly updating records.

The coalition, which calls itself HOPE NOW, is implementing a plan that it says will help as many homeowners as possible prevent foreclosure.

HOPE NOW says about 1.05 million homeowners nationwide received loan modifications in 2011, while about 843,000 houses were sold through foreclosure.

The coalition, which was formed at the height of the subprime mortgage crises, says it’s the fourth year in a row that loan modifications have outpaced foreclosure sales.

“If you get a foreclosure notice, you might still have a way to work things out,” HOPE NOW spokesman Brad Dwin said.

The coalition hosts foreclosure prevention workshops across the country.

“A lot of congressional folks are getting involved,” Dwin said. “It’s a huge issue. Everybody is trying to work toward solutions:The banks, the nonprofits, the government. Everybody is working nonstop. We’ve never see anything like this type of collaboration, ever.”

Some data has shown the number of foreclosures slowing. But Schwartz, Facini and others say their on-the-ground experience hasn’t changed much.

“Our hotline still gets 5,000 calls a day,” Schwartz says.

Still, she says, there are more ways to help homeowners than ever.

Earlier this year, Maryland Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler agreed to join other states in a $25 billion settlement with the nation’s five largest mortgage servicers over alleged foreclosure abuses.

Maryland’s share, nearly $1 billion, is expected to be funneled to various housing programs, including those offering mortgage relief. The money is expected to help 40,000 current or former homeowners.

Under expanded government modification programs that went into effect in May, rental properties and homeowners facing high medical and credit card bills are now eligible for mortgage modifications.

“It’s much better than it used to be,” Schwartz said. “Sometimes we forget the breadth of activity going on around this issue.”

Copyright 2012 The Baltimore Sun