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The Wall Street Journal on Loan Modification Aid – Worse Off?

May 18, 2010: The Wall Street Journal published the article.

The title: “Loan Aid Leaves Some Worse Off”

The subtitle: One in Four in Government’s Mortgage Program Is Dropped; Tales of Exhausted Savings

The article was lengthy and primarily about a woman in Phoenix, yet my picture loomed large on page three of the print edition. I kept reading the article to see when my situation would be addressed, only to find myself relegated to the last three paragraphs. The picture was larger than the area allocated to text. I turned the page in hopes of seeing more and was met with an almost full-page advertisement from Chase touting the ways Chase was helping struggling homeowners. Had the editors of the Wall Street Journal caved in the face of the almighty dollar? I hoped not, but how could one really know?

The article read as follows:

The government’s mortgage-modification program has left some struggling homeowners worse off than they were before.

The Treasury reported Monday that nearly one in four homeowners who were offered lower payments under the Obama administration’s 15-month-old effort have been weeded out of the program. Many people were removed from the trials because they failed to make payments, didn’t provide all the financial documents needed to qualify or were found to be ineligible.

Homeowners are first offered trial modifications under the program, which provides incentive payments to loan servicers, investors and the homeowners. If borrowers make the payments and satisfy other criteria, those trials are made permanent, ensuring a cut in payments for five years.

While awaiting answers, some borrowers keep making payments, exhausting their savings in what may be a futile effort to save their homes. They also incur fees from the banks and delay taking action that might give them a fresh start in a more affordable home.

Some borrowers had unrealistic expectations about loan-relief programs, which were never designed to prevent all foreclosures. Another big problem is that banks often take six to 12 months to determine whether applicants are eligible.

“I had to learn the hard way and deplete my savings doing it,” said Mia Parry, a manager at a mortgage brokerage in Scottsdale, Ariz., who has spent nearly two years seeking a loan modification. She now wishes she had put her home on the market.

Most struggling borrowers do benefit from seeking help, said Aaron Horvath, a senior vice president at Springboard Inc., a nonprofit counseling service based in Riverside, Calif.

Some win modifications, cutting monthly payments by hundreds of dollars. Others who ultimately can’t get modifications at least are allowed to stay in their homes for months, making either no payments or reduced payments.

But “if you’re draining your savings” in a vain effort to hang onto a home, he said, you may end up worse off.

Eager for quick results, the Obama administration last year prodded banks to start people on trials without first obtaining documents proving they were eligible. That has led to many crushed hopes. The Treasury earlier this year changed its rules and told banks to start trials only after getting documents that proved borrowers qualified.

The Treasury said in a monthly report on the government’s $50 billion Home Affordable Modification Program, or HAMP, that about 1.2 million trial modifications had been started under the plan, and about 281,000 borrowers had washed out by the end of April.

Only about 30% of borrowers who seek help from the main foreclosure-prevention counseling program at Neighborhood Housing Services of South Florida end up with modifications, said LeeAnn Robinson, chief operating officer of the Miami-based nonprofit. Many borrowers don’t have enough income to support even reduced loan payments; others give up before completing the paperwork.

On average, it takes seven months to resolve a borrower’s situation, up from four months a year ago, Ms. Robinson said. Banks and other loan servicers can’t keep up with the demand for help, she said.

Ms. Parry bought a home in Phoenix in 2005 for $535,000, but she believes it now would sell for around $250,000. She has been seeking a modification from a unit of Citigroup Inc., the servicer of her two mortgage loans, since June 2008.

Ms. Parry’s application was turned down in late 2008, but President Obama’s announcement of HAMP in February 2009 rekindled her hopes. Ms. Parry decided to keep making payments on her loans because she expected to qualify for this new program.

Citigroup started her on a HAMP trial in June 2009, and she made three payments. Then Citigroup told her there had been a mistake and she would need to go through another three-month trial.

At the end of that second trial, Ms. Parry said, Citigroup told her the investor that owned her first mortgage wasn’t participating in HAMP, so she couldn’t get a modification under that plan. During her trial period, Citigroup charged her more than $1,300 of “late charges” and “delinquency expenses,” she said.

Ms. Parry said Citigroup should have been able to determine that the investor wasn’t participating before she went through the trial. Citigroup recently offered her another type of modification that she said fell short of the HAMP formula and wouldn’t lower her costs enough to make keeping the home worthwhile. Unless Citigroup improves the offer, she will try to sell the home.

A Citigroup spokesman said: “We have worked diligently with the borrower and the investor in an effort to find a solution that meets both the borrower’s needs and the investor’s requirements.”

The Treasury said in a monthly report on the government’s $50 billion Home Affordable Modification Program, or HAMP, that about 1.2 million trial modifications had been started under the plan, and about 281,000 borrowers had washed out by the end of April.

Only about 30% of borrowers who seek help from the main foreclosure-prevention counseling program at Neighborhood Housing Services of South Florida end up with modifications, said LeeAnn Robinson, chief operating officer of the Miami-based nonprofit. Many borrowers don’t have enough income to support even reduced loan payments; others give up before completing the paperwork.

On average, it takes seven months to resolve a borrower’s situation, up from four months a year ago, Ms. Robinson said. Banks and other loan servicers can’t keep up with the demand for help, she said.

Ms. Parry bought a home in Phoenix in 2005 for $535,000, but she believes it now would sell for around $250,000. She has been seeking a modification from a unit of Citigroup Inc., the servicer of her two mortgage loans, since June 2008.

Ms. Parry’s application was turned down in late 2008, but President Obama’s announcement of HAMP in February 2009 rekindled her hopes. Ms. Parry decided to keep making payments on her loans because she expected to qualify for this new program.

Citigroup started her on a HAMP trial in June 2009, and she made three payments. Then Citigroup told her there had been a mistake and she would need to go through another three-month trial.

At the end of that second trial, Ms. Parry said, Citigroup told her the investor that owned her first mortgage wasn’t participating in HAMP, so she couldn’t get a modification under that plan. During her trial period, Citigroup charged her more than $1,300 of “late charges” and “delinquency expenses,” she said.

Ms. Parry said Citigroup should have been able to determine that the investor wasn’t participating before she went through the trial. Citigroup recently offered her another type of modification that she said fell short of the HAMP formula and wouldn’t lower her costs enough to make keeping the home worthwhile. Unless Citigroup improves the offer, she will try to sell the home.

A Citigroup spokesman said: “We have worked diligently with the borrower and the investor in an effort to find a solution that meets both the borrower’s needs and the investor’s requirements.”

Martha Wright stands on her back deck Thursday, May 13, 2010 in Avalon, New Jersey.(Stephen Chernin for The Wall Street Journal)

Martha Wright stands on her back deck Thursday, May 13, 2010 in Avalon, New Jersey.(Stephen Chernin for The Wall Street Journal)

Martha Wright, a marketing executive whose income has dropped in recent years, has been trying since February 2009 to work out a deal with J.P. Morgan Chase & Co., the bank that services the $1.1 million mortgage on her Avalon, N.J. home.

The bank denied her request last summer, but Ms. Wright said she kept trying because the responses from the bank were unclear and inconsistent, and she believed she still might qualify. Meanwhile, she said, by continuing to make payments, she cut her nonretirement savings to about $500 from $63,000 in early 2009.

A spokesman for J.P. Morgan said the bank told Ms. Wright on three occasions that she didn’t qualify for a modification. “Modifying the loan would produce less value to the loan’s owner than foreclosing,” he said.

The Wall Street Journal seeks clarification on Chase Loan Modification Answers

May 14, 2020: Two days elapsed before Chase came back to the Wall Street Journal reporter with a revised comment on my situation. In the face of the evidence I provided, Chase had little choice but to modify their intentionally misleading answer.

Per the reporter:

“Below is Chase’s latest statement re your loan. Please let me know your thoughts. Thanks. 

Chase: We modified the homeowners’ mortgage in 2008, reducing the interest rate to 6% and locking in until 2013.  The homeowner applied for another modification in 2009.  

In the summer of 2009, in March of 2010, and in May of 2010, we notified the homeowner that she did not qualify for a second modification.  We determined that modifying the loan would produce less value to the loan’s owner than foreclosing, using analysis based on the Treasury’s model.  There also a question about whether it was her primary residence.”

My hair was on fire over this misleading representation of how I’d been strung along and flat-out lied to for over thirteen months. I wanted to run screaming to the reporter but I composed myself. The Wall Street Journal was a conservative publication and the reporter had an obligation to be objective and hear all sides. I was absolutely livid but I composed a measured response:

Thank you for giving me the opportunity to respond. Regarding the statement: We modified the homeowners’ mortgage in 2008, reducing the interest rate to 6% and locking in until 2013. The Loan originated as a sub-prime pick & pay with Washington Mutual on 2/26/06. Over the next eighteen months I received countless marketing solicitations offering to “modify” my loan to a fixed rate; they all seemed to focus on me paying WaMu some lump sum in order to “fix” my interest rate.

By mid to late 2007 I actually understood my loan and the concept of “negative amortization”. I started paying the full mortgage amount each month (the principal and interest) and even made some headway on reducing the negative amortization. Once I focused on the mortgage it was evident that when the loan adjusted, the interest rate was going to jump and the full amount would increase exponentially.

The Washington Mutual solicitations continued and with each “offer” the lump sum amount to “fix” the interest rate kept dropping. By January 2008 I could see that interest rates were going up and I feared the interest rate reset. In February 2008 I folded and paid Washington Mutual $995.00 for the privilege of locking into a 5/1 LIBOR Interest Only ARM at 6.62%.

To call this streamline refinance which I paid for the privilege of getting a “modification” is disingenuous at best; my “mortgage modification” consisted of nothing more than a five-year fixed rate interest only loan with a new higher (not lower) payment. The interest rate was not reduced, indeed, it increased.

Regarding the statement: The homeowner applied for another modification in 2009. This is correct; I initiated a modification request on 2/24/09 and was denied on 8/25/09 because: “Your property equity exceeds our program guidelines.”

Regarding the statement: In the summer of 2009, in March of 2010, and in May of 2010, we notified the homeowner that she did not qualify for a second modification. We determined that modifying the loan would produce less value to the loan’s owner than foreclosing, using analysis based on the Treasury’s model. I stand by my original comments: That is not correct. I have two written letters from Chase, which I have shared with you.

To reiterate: The first denial, dated August 25, 2009, states in one sentence: “Your property equity exceeds our program guidelines.” There is no reference to the Treasury’s model as a reason for denial; nor is there reference to a residency issue. The way Chase has worded this new response is disingenuous at best.  

The second written communication dated March 5, 2010 states “We are unable to offer you a Home Affordable Modification because we are unable to verify that you do live in the property as your primary residence”. There is no reference to the Treasury’s model as a reason for denial; regarding the residency issue, Chase has three years of Federal Income tax returns at the address (I can provide five years worth) & five years of voting records. Chase confirmed my residency was not an issue and reopened the case (which is why they kept working on it and allegedly generated another denial in May 2010).

Regarding: the May 2010 denial Chase references. As previously noted, I have received no written communication of this and know only from a call I placed yesterday (5/13/10) that, per Rafael in Loss Mitigation at Chase, the modification was denied on 5/4/10. It is again disingenuous at best to state Chase notified the homeowner, as, without your intercession, I would STILL have no knowledge of this denial; I waited again for the mailman today before responding and there is nothing from Chase.

Regarding the statement: We determined that modifying the loan would produce less value to the loan’s owner than foreclosing, using analysis based on the Treasury’s model. This has not been communicated to the homeowner in writing at any time. I am aware of this ONLY through your email asking for a comment on Chase’s initial response and subsequently through the above referenced Springboard conference call of 5/13/10. Also, I am not certain but I believe the Treasury’s model applies to HAMP modifications, and was we know, I have never qualified for a HAMP modification.  

Finally, I stand by my statement submitted 5/14/10: The opaque banking procedures practiced by Chase do not help the homeowner, they help only the investors. 

If I knew back in February 2009, or even August 2009, what I know today — that the investors behind my loan find it more profitable to foreclose (negative net present value) than to work with me on a modification — I could have made an informed decision. I would have taken the hit and drained my IRA to bring the loan down to a smaller amount and refinanced while my credit record was excellent. At this point, my savings are depleted and my credit record is distressed; even if I reduce the loan amount, no lender will refinance.

 

Springboard credit.org Nonprofit Consumer Credit Management

The Wall Street Journal reporter was working on many facets of the “worse off” story, including speaking with a representative of the Springboard credit.org Nonprofit Consumer Credit Management organization for a perspective on the situation. They offered to help me try to work something out with Chase and I jumped at the chance. I was devastated by the “negative net present value” comment Chase provided and while I’d received nothing in writing about it, the state of affairs seemed dire. Why hadn’t Chase communicated they would prefer to foreclose rather than modify my loan from the get-go? Why string me along for over thirteen months? It simply made no sense. How could anyone make an informed decision without timely and clear answers?

I would take help from anyone with something to offer, and while I’d been working with a credit counselor at CCCSDV.org, perhaps the folks at Springboard www.credit.org could help. It was free, they were offering to help; Springboard had professionals who specialized in home loan modifications and I needed all the help I could get – I went for it.

Chase loan modification denial due to negative net present value

May 12, 2010: Even as I was taking Ms. De Laura’s (214) 626-2671 “courtesy” call from the Chase Home Lending Executive Office, an e-mail from the Wall Street Journal was waiting in my in-box, with a comment from Chase. Per the reporter:

“Here’s the response I got from Chase re your situation:

Chase communicated to the customer in the summer of 2009, in March of 2010, and in May of 2010 that the customer would not qualify for a loan modification because the analysis showed a negative net present value.   

 Is that correct?”

Was this another test? I composed my thoughts and replied:

“That is not correct. I have two written letters from Chase. The first denial, dated August 25, 2009, states in one sentence: “Your property equity exceeds our program guidelines.” 

The second written communication dated March 5, 2010 states “We are unable to offer you a Home Affordable Modification because we are unable to verify that you do live in the property as your primary residence”.

The case was reopened once I provided my voting records and residency was proven. 

There is nothing in May of 2010, indeed Shawnte Trowlsdell told me on 5/10/10 a letter was to have gone out on April 30th but it did not; she could not see the letter and did not know what it said or why it was not sent. My mailman has come and left today and there are no letters from Chase. The phrase “negative net present value” has never been used nor do I really know what it means…

Two minutes ago Chase called to tell me they were composing a written response to my letter to Mr. Lowman.” 

I was beside myself. I now had an answer, whatever “negative net present value” meant, because this was the first time I’d ever seen those four words in a sentence, and the sentence came from Chase via The Wall Street Journal. There was nothing in writing from Chase about this, nor had those four words ever been expressed in any of my hundreds of calls to Chase.

I didn’t know what it meant but I did know that the response from Chase was curiously worded in such a way as to imply I’d been told all this before, which was simply not true. There were really two sentences in the quote, strung together with the word “because”, only the “because” had never been shared with me. 

The Wall Street Journal needed to know this so I faxed the reporter copies of my two denial letters. I also sent a shout-out to my banker and broker friends to learn the meaning of “negative net present value” 

I spoke with my broker and another broker and a banker I knew – all were mystified by the term “negative net present value” and thought there must be some kind of mistake since I was not underwater in the loan, indeed; I had some equity, as evidenced by the August 2009 denial. The banker said she would dig deeper and get back to me. This was the same banker who had helped me prepare my monthly expenses spreadsheet; she was familiar with my situation and eager to offer assistance. 

Finally I sent an email to the Wall Street Journal reporter and expressed my frustration over not knowing what those four words meant and anger at having never seen them before. They seemed like more bank-talk designed to confuse and obscure, why couldn’t the guidelines and the formulas be transparent? 

His reply was chilling: 

What they mean, I believe, is this: It isn’t in the best financial interests of the owner of the loan to give you a modification. I believe they mean this: the net present value formula shows they would be better off either collecting payments from you under the current terms or foreclosing.”

 I hoped he was mistaken but I knew at that very moment that Chase had been playing games for with me for over fourteen months; they had only provided a clear answer when backed against the wall by the Wall Street Journal.

Was this the new American way, or just the Chase way? It seemed to me that Chase was continuing the predatory loan practices devised by Washington Mutual, and they were even better at playing the game.  

Still chasing answers from David Lowman CEO Chase Home Lending

May 12, 2010: Having not heard back from anyone at Chase regarding my April 19, 2010 letter to David B. Lowman, CEO Chase Home Lending, even though I had a USPS Certified Mail delivery confirmation dated April 21, 2010 at 10:54 am, I decided to try sending my letter to an alternate e-mail address. I thought I’d deduced the Chase e-mail protocol and had already sent David.B.Lowman@chase.com  a copy of my letter; it was not returned as undeliverable. But I’d heard nothing after almost a month, so I tried an alternate e-mail address and sent the letter to David.B.Lowman@jpmchase.com to see what might happen.  It was not returned as undeliverable, but who even knew what that meant.

Mr. David Lowman probably had someone intercepting his e-mail along with his regular mail and routing it to who knows where. I really needed answers about my loan modification.

The Wall Street Journal seeks answers from Chase

May 10, 2010: I went back and forth by e-mail throughout the day with the Wall Street Journal reporter, answering questions about my financial situation, why I was still waiting, why I hadn’t just sold my house, etc. At the end of the day the reporter told me he’d just asked Chase why I hadn’t gotten an answer after almost 15 months. I was stunned.

Would it take the Wall Street Journal to get an answer from Chase about my loan modification? That was crazy! Why couldn’t regular people get straight answers from Chase?

It seemed to me that Chase was continuing the deceptive practices originated by Washington Mutual. I wasn’t the only one who felt that way; Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner vowed to crack down on shoddy practices…maybe I should write him a letter as well.

Chase Home Finance only calls when they want to

May 10, 2010, 2:00 pm: Natalia Carrillo at Chase (800) 848-9380 ext. 382-3158 had not returned my call; it had been over 48 hours if we were counting business days only, although Natalia had called me once on a Sunday (April 25, 2010 at 3:55 pm), so it had really been over 72 hours without a call back, or any contact from Chase. It had also been eleven days since my financial interview with Chase – so what exactly were these new processes? They seemed like the same old Chase processes: ignore, obfuscate and deny.

Chase Home Lending sends an email…what does it mean?

April 30, 2010, 11:11 am: I received this e-mail from Olga Danilova:

Hello Ms. Wright,

We are unable to provide you with a modification at this time. We will be sending your [sic] our detailed response in a letter. 

Thank you 

Olga Danilova

Chase Home Lending

Home Lending Executive Office

Phone: (614) 422-2260

Toll Free: (888) 310-7995 ext. 2260

Fax: (866) 480-1239

I decided there was not much else I could do until I either received a real letter in the mail from Chase or heard back from Natalia Carrillo, especially if Olga was going to be out of the country for two weeks. Either way, this made no sense. Why had I done the Financial Interview on April 29, 2010 if my modification had been denied on April 28, 2010? Was Chase playing games, stringing me along and pretending to offer this struggling homeowner help when all they really wanted to do was drain my last dollar in savings and then take my home? It felt that way, especially after being denied a modification because I had three months cash reserves on hand. Three months was a nano-second in the life of this mortgage.

Was Chase continuing the predatory lending practices established by Washington Mutual, masquerading as a friend of the family while they fleeced you…I sure hoped not.

Chase loan modification denial?!

April 30, 2010, 10:00 am: Olga Danilova called from the Chase Home Lending Executive Office. She’d been out of the office for two days and was calling to tell me I’d been denied for a loan modification. According to Olga, I could afford the monthly mortgage payment and I “did not qualify”. I asked her to repeat herself as this just could not be true. She said that based on the documents I’d submitted, I could afford this mortgage.

I said what she was telling me simply could not be right; there was some kind of mistake. I went on to say that the documents I’d submitted clearly showed my W-2 take home pay was a thousand dollars a month less than my mortgage payment plus insurance and taxes. What on earth was she talking about?

Olga paused, re-read the file and blithely said, “Oh yes, I see that. I meant to say you’ve been denied because you can’t afford to pay this loan.” No kidding! I said of course I couldn’t afford to pay the loan as structured, that’s why I’d sought a modification. Olga replied, “Well you don’t meet our requirements for any program.” I said I knew I didn’t qualify for any HAMP government program; I was pursuing the Chase in-house program. Olga reiterated that I did not meet the criteria so I asked her what exactly the criterion was. Olga said, “It has to be 31%”. I was so darn mad I forgot to ask 31% of what, or to point out that if Chase reduced the interest rate to 2%, it would be 31% of my gross pay and I could pay the loan. My hair was on fire and I couldn’t see straight.

I said if you knew that, why didn’t you just tell me back in February 2009 or in December 2009? Olga retorted by pointing out I’d also been denied on 3/5/10 and I rebutted. I told her Chase had alleged they were unable to prove residency; that had been resolved and on 3/8/10 the case had been reopened. Olga’s reply: “Oh yes, I see that. Well, you were denied two days ago because you can’t afford the loan. You need to sell your house.”

I could see that Olga really didn’t know what she was talking about and apparently didn’t know how to read the file, so how valid was this communication? I asked her if I would get a denial letter, something in writing explaining exactly why I’d been denied. She said she wasn’t sure, “probably”. I asked how long it would take to get a letter and she said “a couple of weeks”. I got the feeling she was just making up the answers and said that a “couple of weeks” was not acceptable. Could she fax something? No. E-mail? No. I then asked why I’d been on the phone at six o’clock the night before for over an hour giving a financial interview. Olga wanted to know who I spoke with and I said Natalia Carrillo and Bailey; she then asked if they were with Chase!

(This had to be a parallel universe). I said of course they were with Chase, where else would they be from but she didn’t seem to care. Olga said, “Well, you were denied two days ago. Maybe they didn’t check the system.”

I had a feeling about who might or might not be checking the system and I was not going to let Olga off the hook without a fight. I said I needed a letter and I did not consider this modification denied without something in writing. Olga said the letters come from Loss Mitigation but the Chase Home Lending Executive Office sends them. She went on to say she would be out of the country for two weeks. I said that really would not do, I needed something to acknowledge we even had this conversation. I convinced Olga to send me an e-mail telling me that I would get a letter. It wasn’t much but it was all I could get her to commit.

Chasing answers about my Chase loan modification

April 29, 2010, 6:09 pm: Natalia Carrillo Chase Home Finance (800) 848-9380 called. She confirmed receipt of the Year-To-Date P&L and said that pending the financial interview she had everything she needed to turn the loan over to Underwriting. I asked Natalia why I’d been told on April 5, 2010 that my loan was turned over to Underwriting on 3/1/10, and why I’d been told previously it was in Underwriting as of 12/15/09.

Natalia said that before I was with Imminent Default, a separate area working on loans that are not delinquent. Now that Chase had gone through the “process changes” she told me about on April 25, 2010, she “overrode” the account.

I pointed out that if Chase had addressed this loan modification in a timely fashion, I would not be in arrears, and expressed my anger over being strung along for 14-months. Natalia said she really couldn’t comment on that; the file was “just not reviewed” and when April came around it went to Natalia’s department. I protested; Natalia said the only explanation she could offer on behalf of Chase regarding the delay was that the “priority is for people who are behind” and my “file was just not reviewed”.

Natalia went on to say I had to complete the financial interview to determine if I qualified for a repayment plan although typically the interview does not qualify anyone for a payment plan. Once the Chase financial interview was conducted Natalia would get the go-ahead to submit the information straight to Underwriting who would determine if the loan could be modified.

This seemed very convoluted after fourteen months of paperwork and phone calls. It felt very much like a parallel and even less-friendly universe so I again expressed my dissatisfaction and concern. Natalia seemed surprised; she said there were virtually “no notes” in my file about any of the calls and submissions I’d alluded to. The conversation didn’t seem to be going anywhere so I decided to forge ahead and proceed with the financial interview. Natalia stayed on the line as she transferred me to a Loss Mitigation Solicitor and signed off when the Loss Mitigation Solicitor picked up.