Why Millions May Be Leaving Mortgage Assistance on the Table


After John DeMetro suffered a debilitating arm injury on the job in 2005, he began to slip on paying his mortgage.

Though Walmart, his employer at the time, paid for the 19 surgeries and 2½ years of therapy that it took for him to recover, DeMetro, of Utica, N.Y., said that he could no longer work enough hours to keep up with the interest rate on his adjustable-rate mortgage, which spiked at around the time of his injury.

Over the course of six years, DeMetro said, he tried to fix the situation himself, applying for a loan modification but being rejected three times. It wasn't until January that he finally got some help: He consulted with the NeighborWorks HomeOwnership Center, a free government-subsidized housing counseling organization whose persistent efforts finally got his interest rate lowered from 13 percent to 3 percent. Housing advisor Rose Marie Roberts (pictured below) acted as an intermediary between DeMetro and his bank, keeping track of his paperwork and submitting it over the Web.

It turns out that NeighborWorks was available to DeMetro the whole time -- and could have gotten his situation under control long ago. But he waited years to seek it out because he was unaware that it even existed. He speculates that that may have been because, as with so many other mortgage assistance offers flooding his mailbox, he was afraid of scams and overlooked it.

"Everybody thinks that everything is a scam," DeMetro said. "So you think that always, and you kind of don't notice [the legitimate programs]."

Indeed, experts say that many distressed homeowners fail to seek government-backed housing assistance for the same reason.

A Record of Success

In a survey of homeowners conducted in May by Money Management International, a financial counseling organization approved by the Department of Housing and Urban Development, 53 percent of respondents cited fears of scams or fraudulent services as reasons why they wouldn't seek help from housing counseling organizations.

While skepticism of mortgage-assistance offers can be a good thing, it can also cause homeowners to miss out on meaningful help.

A study by the Urban Institute found that HUD-backed housing counseling groups help increase the chances of homeowners scoring a loan modification by 89 percent. And a separate study from HUD found that nearly 70 percent of surveyed homeowners who used counseling obtained a mortgage remedy.

But many borrowers remain unaware of housing counseling's existence, let alone its impressive results.

"If we did have marketing dollars -- and the government could put in more marketing dollars -- then we could get the word out. But unfortunately we're not at that point," said Joanne Kerstetter, vice president of education and community relations at Money Management International.

Still, the National Foreclosure Mitigation Counseling program has reached 1.3 million homeowners since its launch in 2008, reports NeighborWorks America, which administers it.

But other assistance programs are not reaching as many homeowners as consumer advocates would like.

A foreclosure review program launched by the Federal Reserve and Office of the Comptroller of the Currency last year aims to provide redress to homeowners who lost their homes to illegal foreclosure. But as of April 20, only 4 percent of the 4.1 million borrowers who were mailed questions about the review actually asked for one -- despite revelations that banks had committed foreclosure improprieties on a mass scale. Banks settled an investigation into foreclosure abuses by agreeing to pay a $25 billion fine to 49 states in February.

Likewise, the Home Affordable Modification Program had set a goal of reaching 3 million to 4 million borrowers. Only 990,000 homeowners had taken advantage of a HAMP modification as of March 2012, according to HUD's April Housing Scorecard. In an effort to boost the program, the Obama administration recently tripled subsidies to banks who perform the modifications.

'People Just Don't Talk About It'

Perhaps one of the reasons why the program hasn't aided more homeowners is because some distressed borrowers "practice denial," said Jack Guttentag, an emeritus professor of finance at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School who offers mortgage advice on his website, mtgprofessor.com.

Traumatized by a deluge of debt-collecting calls and letters, some homeowners retreat into themselves, Guttentag said. "You put your head in the sand, and you hope it will go away -- which, of course, it never does."

DeMetro can understand that. He says that he and his wife were embarrassed by their financial situation, so they kept mum on it.

"People just don't talk about it," he says. "We didn't tell anybody, either. Nobody says, 'I'm in trouble with my mortgage.' "

Daren Blomquist, vice president of online listing service RealtyTrac, mentioned yet another reason that borrowers in a state of foreclosure don't take advantage of government-backed programs like HAMP or housing counseling: They don't mind living in their homes for free.

"Anecdotally, what we've heard from some servicers is that not all of these borrowers really want to be saved from foreclosure," Blomquist said. "They're in a situation ... where they haven't been making any mortgage payments for one or two years or more."

DeMetro says that if he hears from any of his peers about their mortgage problems -- which he hasn't yet -- he'll take them straight to NeighborWorks HomeOwnership Center's doorstep.

"I would give them [my adviser's] phone number, email, take them there, whatever," he said.

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How to Save Your Home from Foreclosure

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Should Underwater Homeowners Just Walk Away?

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Originally published