Well over 4 million homeowners affected by the foreclosure crisis are eligible for an independent review of their cases – but only a small percentage of them have requested one through a recently available federal program, and the deadline to do so is looming.
The Independent Foreclosure Review (IFR) allows eligible current and former homeowners to have their foreclosure files reviewed by independent consultants. Homeowners who were financially harmed by abuses or errors of their mortgage servicers will be eligible for compensation.
As of September 2012, 18 percent of eligible homeowners in California had responded to the mailing about the IFR, which is run by the Federal Reserve Bank and the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency (OCC). Nationally, the response rate is only 7 percent. The deadline to request a review is December 31.
“The response rate has been incredibly low compared to the number of homeowners who may have been affected,” says Maeve Elise Brown, Executive Director of Housing and Economic Rights Advocates. She spoke at a briefing for ethnic media on Wednesday hosted by New America Media with support from the San Francisco Foundation, intended to raise awareness about the IFR Program.
“There was almost no outreach to people of color or immigrants,” says Brown.
Lena Robinson, a regional manager of the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco, says that the IFR is particularly focused on increasing the number of African American and Asian American responders.
Mailings about the program were sent out in November 2011. Many homeowners were suspicious of the mailing and dismissed it as a mortgage scam.
Additionally, despite the Federal Reserve Bank’s intention to reach out to Asian American homeowners, the mailings were only sent in English and Spanish (with a note about where to find other translations).
“Unfortunately, a lot of the information that’s out there is not in Chinese [and other Asian languages],” says Allen Zhao, the Housing Coordinator at ASIAN, Inc.
Cheyenne Martinez-Boyette of the Mission Economic Development Agency (MEDA) adds that the foreclosure crisis “has impacted the Latino community disproportionately,” which he says represents almost 48 percent of all foreclosures.
Etelvina Reyes, a San Francisco Bay Area homeowner, had lost her job and was going through a divorce when she got behind on her mortgage payments. She first approached a third party that promised to help her modify her home loan with her bank. The effort ultimately failed, though she was still charged a fee. She then tried to get a loan modification directly through her lender, Citibank, which granted her a trial modification.
One day she went to the bank to make a mortgage payment. “They said, ‘Why are you paying the mortgage? You are no longer the owner.’ The bank was now the owner,” says Reyes. “That was the worst day of my life.”
Reyes was likely a victim of “dual-tracking” – a practice in which banks try to foreclose on homeowners before giving a decision on a loan modification. The practice is set to be outlawed in California next year. She went to MEDA for help, and the organization was able to assist her in rescinding the foreclosure.
Reyes recently requested a review through the IFR, and could be eligible for compensation if it’s found that she was wrongfully foreclosed upon.
Any homeowner whose primary residence was at some stage of foreclosure any time in 2009 or 2010, and who used a mortgage servicer on the IFR’s list of servicers and affiliates, is eligible for a review. Homeowners who did not actually lose their homes to foreclosure are still eligible to apply. Compensation ranging from $500 to $125,000 plus equity will be determined by how much the homeowner was financially harmed during the foreclosure process. In the most severe cases, says Robinson, the foreclosure can be rescinded.
Despite the fact that the IFR began accepting requests for review in November 2011, and 234,000 homeowners have already requested one, no decisions have been made and no compensation has been paid out. Robinson says that at this point, the program’s main priority is to “get a sense of the range of issues that homeowners may have faced.”
No money will be released until the application process is closed, and regulators won’t give a time frame. Maeve Elise Brown says that it’s not clear how obvious the financial harm will have to be in order for a homeowner to be compensated.
Brown says that there have also been significant problems with the process in terms of who was hired to review the files. An investigation has revealed ties between the banks and the independent consultants they have hired to review the foreclosure files. The process will “require ongoing oversight by the public,” according to Brown.
Robinson of the Federal Reserve Bank maintains, though, that this is homeowners’ opportunity to “close the chapter on that part of their lives.”
On December 10, the Mission Economic Development Agency will hold a workshop to help eligible homeowners submit a request to the IFR online. Spanish language translators will be available. Applicants should have their loan number, the last four digits of their Social Security number, and any documentation that would substantiate financial harm during the foreclosure process. 2301 Mission Street, Suite 301, San Francisco. 6-8 PM.
Homeowners who did not receive the IRF form can call 1-888-952-9105 or apply online: www.independentforeclosurereview.com
Homeowners can visit hud.gov for a list of housing counseling agencies that are approved by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
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