Battling foreclosures and stress at St. Ambrose

Counselors take on about 1,900 cases a year but more than 150,000 homeowners need help

April 04, 2010|By Jamie Smith Hopkins | jamie.smith.hopkins@baltsun.com

Counselors and attorneys at St. Ambrose Housing Aid Center, Baltimore's largest nonprofit foreclosure-prevention team, can take on about 1,900 troubled borrowers a year - a weighty load of nearly 200 cases each.

But more than 150,000 Maryland homeowners are behind on their mortgages.

Even now - three years into the foreclosure wave and despite multibillion-dollar bailouts - the team of nine employees and one volunteer at St. Ambrose aren't seeing the crisis abate. Instead, from their offices in a converted red-brick rowhouse in Barclay, a neighborhood with scores of abandoned homes, they see a never-ending stream of clients.

Anxious, depressed and stressed clients.

And that stress is catching.

The housing collapse's toll hasn't just been on over-leveraged homeowners and lenders. It's also felt by housing counselors stationed on the front lines.

St. Ambrose employees are feeling the pressure that comes with work that's more mission than job, work that's often frustrating and heart-breaking. They are negotiating with banks and mortgage servicers to get their clients' homes off the path to the auction block - to save the biggest financial investment many will ever make. Slow and contradictory responses mean cases routinely drag on for months.

Emotions run so high that Anne Balcer Norton, director of foreclosure prevention at St. Ambrose, has considered installing panic buttons in rooms where staffers meet with clients.

Getting a mortgage during the housing bubble was easier than easy, but getting it modified now to avoid foreclosure is often fiendishly difficult. Across the country, housing counselors are trying to help borrowers navigate a process that seems to change on a daily basis - to collect the documents lenders want to see and to follow up, and follow up, and follow up again with the servicer handling the loan until someone makes a decision.

President Barack Obama's Home Affordable Modification Program has $35 billion earmarked to streamline the process of lowering monthly payments for qualified homeowners. But about a year after the program launched, most U.S. borrowers the government believes are eligible for a HAMP loan modification haven't received one even on a trial basis. Just 5 percent had loans permanently modified. Meanwhile, more cases keep coming as joblessness worsens. Out-of-work borrowers have little money to make even a reduced mortgage payment.

"I naively came into this position without fully appreciating how big this crisis would become," said Norton, head of the operation since fall 2007, soon after foreclosures began worsening. "It's now a pandemic."

She wants her charges to have stress-management training, and she broached the subject when they gathered around a battered table for a staff meeting that marked the start of a recent workday at St. Ambrose. Did they have problems setting boundaries with clients expecting miracles? she asked.

"No, I think it's more how not to take it home with you," said Cara Stretch, 31, a counselor who joined St. Ambrose at the end of 2007 after working for a lender.

This is Stretch's dream job, doing what she can to make a difference in people's lives. But the collective distress of her clients is a powerful force. When a client faced an auction date in January, the December holiday season filled Stretch with anxiety. She decided to keep working the case while she was ostensibly on vacation.

With often-overwhelmed loan servicers, getting approved for a loan modification - or even definitely rejected - can be a test of fortitude.

Bryan Sheldon, a St. Ambrose counselor, submitted documentation for one Baltimore homeowner and was told she would qualify for a modification. But several months later, still no written confirmation. Was she going to be approved or not? Sheldon, a 24-year-old with shaggy brown hair, dialed the company on speaker phone to find out.

"Thank you for calling Bank of America home retention division," said a cheerful recorded voice. "We are here to help! Please be advised we are a debt collector."

A bank employee named Angela picked up the call and said the loan was being reviewed to determine eligibility for HAMP. "I don't show any decisions have been made," she said. "The normal period is 90 days, but it can be longer."

Sheldon asked who would handle the modification, pointing out that two negotiators had already been assigned and later reassigned.

No one at the moment, Angela said.

Sheldon asked about the foreclosure proceedings.

"Currently, the property is in foreclosure with no sale date," Angela answered.

"Of course, one can be assigned at any time," she added.

Sheldon sighed and moved on. He tried to return a rare message from a loan-modification employee, another Bank of America staffer, but the person wasn't there, and he was transferred to someone else. Next he tried Chase to find out why a client who was approved for a loan modification had yet to receive the paperwork confirming it.

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