* Limited response from potential beneficiaries
* Outreach letters too complex for most borrowers
* Process was designed to fail, critics charge
By Anna Louie Sussman
NEW YORK, July 16 Nothing about the letter that
Keturah Miller received late last year indicated it could be
worth as much as $125,000 to her. So she put it aside,
forgetting about it for months until she stumbled across it
Miller, 34, a family liaison worker with the New York City
Department of Education, read it over four times. It still made
no sense to her.
"I can read the words, but the meaning of what they're
saying? That's the confusing part for me," she said.
The letter was one of 4.3 million forms sent under a
flagship U .S. program to try to help people who may have
experienced financial injury due to errors in their mortgage
An estimated 4 million families lost their homes due to
foreclosure from 2007 to 2012.
So far, fewer than 5 percent of the potential beneficiaries
- 214,000 - have requested a review of their cases, a number
critics say confirms their suspicion that the process was
designed to protect banks, not help consumers.
While there is no national figure for how many families were
harmed by servicing errors, a February 2012 audit by San
Francisco County officials found that about 84 percent of the
400 foreclosures they examined contained irregularities.
Tens of thousands of homeowners were victims of the
"robo-signing" scandal in which employees of mortgage servicing
firms generated bogus documents to speed foreclosure.
The Independent Foreclosure Review was launched last
November by 14 major mortgage servicers and targeted borrowers
whose homes were in foreclosure during 2009 and 2010.
The Office of the Comptroller of the Currency, a bank
regulator, the Federal Reserve Board, and the now-defunct Office
of Thrift Supervision issued consent orders in April 2011
mandating the review.
Depending on the nature of errors, remediation amounts range
from $500 to $125,000 plus lost home equity - sums that consumer
advocates say often pale in comparison to the overall financial
and emotional damage caused by a wrongful foreclosure.
Miller's struggle to understand the rights laid out in her
review letter may not be unique.
A report released last week by the Government Accountability
Office found that the letters' complex language, their omission
of important information about remediation, and a failure to
consider that some recipients speak or read little English could
"impede some borrowers' ability to respond."
Miller, who is finishing her Master's in Business
Administration this year, finally called a housing counselor.
"It's like it's done for a lawyer to understand, or someone
who's involved with mortgage loans," she said.
In addition to the overwhelming lack of response, more than
5 percent of letters were returned as undeliverable, a problem
that Walter Walker, who has worked as a housing counselor for 20
years in Florida, said could have been prevented if counselors
and others on the front line of the U.S. housing crisis had been
involved when the outreach program was designed.
"The people who are most likely to receive one of these
letters and be eligible are no longer at their addresses," he
said. "We have the resources to follow up, and in some cases
find these people, but to my knowledge, not one housing
counselor was consulted."
A spokesman for the OCC, which along with the Federal
Reserve Board is overseeing the review process, said it was
impossible to say what would be a successful number of
Consumer advocates say the low numbers are indicative of the
outreach's flawed design.
While almost half of U.S. adults read at the level of a 13-
or 14-year-old, the form is written at a second-year college
level, according to an analysis by a consumer group.
The letters and the review's website were not tested with
target audiences, and the letters were sent out only in English,
although 5.5 percent of the adult population in the United
States reports they speak poor or no English.
A Spanish-language advertising campaign was launched and
translators for over 200 languages are available at a toll-free
number, but the form itself remains available only in English.
"By the time we were able to meet with the OCC and the Fed,
a lot of things were too late," said Graciela Aponte, senior
legislative analyst at the National Council of La Raza, a
Hispanic civil rights organization.
She told regulators that the form was too complex and looked
"like a scam," but was told "there were absolutely no edits that
could be made to it."
Walker, the Florida housing counselor, said his clients
declined to fill out the form when they realized they were not
guaranteed compensation, or were suspicious of it and unwilling
to give out personal information.
"Those were the two most common responses I got other than,
'What is this?' and throwing it in the trash can," he said.
To improve the process, the GAO recommended making the form
and website more readable and analyzing trends in borrower
response and non-response.
The OCC spokesman said the agency is in the process of
implementing the recommendations of the GAO's report but could
not comment on cases reviewed to date. He said the agency is
considering doing an additional round of mailings before a new
deadline on Sept. 30.
"The OCC has now essentially admitted that their outreach is
a failure," said Diane Thompson, an attorney with the National
Consumer Law Center.
"They've now twice extended the time that people have to
respond after being extremely adamant both times that there was
not going to be an extension. The only reason to extend it is
because your numbers are embarrassing."