Couple losing way to hold home State mortgage assistance programs run out of funding.

November 05, 1991|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,Evening Sun Staff

James Collins, 76, and his wife, Merl, 65, sit in the empty living room of their Lochearn home, watching a tiny black-and-white television on the floor. On the 4-inch-wide screen, President Bush is speaking at a news conference.

The suburban house is empty of furniture, and only one of four light bulbs in the living room fixture is lighted.

Still recovering from a partial stroke she suffered last March, Merl sits in her wheelchair, while her husband, who suffers from kidney and prostate problems, uses his medical walker as a stool.

Brought low by bad health and resulting money problems, the Collinses are three months behind on their $843-a-month mortgage payments and virtually camping out in their house.

Fearful of foreclosure and an eviction at any moment, they moved all their belongings to a relative's basement, Merl says.

And now their last hope, a state-sponsored fund that provides mortgage assistance to keep people from losing their homes, has run out of money, too.

The fund covers four programs that offer different types of aid to homeowners. One allows those who qualify to refinance their mortgage loans at a lower interest rate subsidized by the state. The Collinses had submitted an application on Oct. 3 through Baltimore County's anti-poverty agency, but it will not be processed, they have been told.

Patricia Payne, deputy secretary of the state Department of Housing and Community Development, says the poor economy has caused a sharp increase in demand for aid.

The state home ownership programs spent $4.4 million from July 1 through Sept. 30 on 216 loans. In comparison, the programs last fiscal year took almost the entire 12 months to spend $4.4 million for 280 loans.

By mid-October, the programs had gone through almost all of the $6.15 million in loan funds allocated for this fiscal year, July 1 through next June 30. Another 147 loans had been made in October, bringing the total to 363. Then statewide budget cuts wiped out the $147,000 remaining in this year's allocation.

All four mortgage assistance programs were shut down until next July, Payne says.

Operations affected include the Maryland Home Financing Program, the Emergency Mortgage Assistance Program, the Reverse Equity Mortgage Program and the Settlement Expense

Loan Program.

The Collinses may have been close enough to approval to have benefited had the $147,000 not been cut, Payne says, but that is not certain.

Baltimore County's anti-poverty agency, the Community Assistance Network, has three other applications that it will not submit, says Director Robert Gajdys. Last year, his agency sent in 73 applications and had 17 approved for $255,000 worth of aid to poor county families, he says.

"This country is a mess," Merl Collins says as she watches President Bush talk about taxes and the economy. The government has money to give for foreign aid, she says, but not to help people here at home who are losing their homes.

After a lifetime of work and raising seven children, the Collinses' hopes for a peaceful retirement are fading. James W. Collins worked for 40 years, from 1937 until 1977, for Bethlehem Steel at Sparrows Point. He receives a pension of $598 a month, and Merl gets a pension of $370 a month for her years as a health-care worker. Combining their pensions and Social Security payments, the Collinses have an income of $1,627 a month.

But they must spend at least $200 a month on medication and pay their share of medical bills too. "I have an $800 bill here for my [physical] therapy," Merl says.

Ill, but still fighting, Merl says she has no plans about where to stay permanently if they are ousted from their home. "I'm determined not to lose it," she says of the small, three-bedroom, brick-front house. The couple bought the house, on a quiet street off Liberty Road near Patterson Avenue, in August 1979.

The original mortgage came with a $550-a-month payment, but the couple got a second loan just before her stroke last year to add aluminum siding and make other improvements, and the payment rose to $843.

The couple's children scraped together enough to make the mortgage payments from the time of Merl's stroke until August. But two of them have been laid off from their jobs, she says, and another is disabled, and still another's wife just had a baby. They just can't keep making the payments, she says.

The children also provide transportation and some food, and the couple sometimes stays with one son.

Staying with their children is not a permanent solution, however, at least not in Merl Collins' mind. "All my life I've been in a house," she says, explaining that her children have "their own things."

"In this world, all we live by is faith," she says.

James followed his older brothers to Sparrows Point during the depths of the Great Depression, and found steady work. He met Merl, who came over from her birthplace in the Bahamas, and they married.

Despite the travail, Merl remains somewhat stoic. "We had a good life," she says of her years with James. "We had what we needed."

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