Mass modification event saves U.S. homes, marriages

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Want a snapshot of the U.S. housing market? Check out a mortgage modification event -- the lending equivalent of speed dating.

Yolando Mendez (L), 47, gets a hug from her daughter Patty Mendez (R) as her son Jesus Mendez looks on after she was able to have her home loan modified at the "Save the Dream" home loan modification event, coordinated by the non-profit advocacy group Neighborhood Assistance Corporation of America (NACA), at the Los Angeles Convention Center in Los Angeles, September 25, 2009. REUTERS/Danny Moloshok

A recent gathering at the sprawling Los Angeles Convention Center showed the ups and downs of mortgage relief efforts with joyful tears and talk of marriages saved, but also with dashed hopes and fears of homelessness.

With an estimated 7 to 9 million American families saddled with mortgages they cannot afford, these mass events can cut through the modification red tape and help stem the tide of foreclosures that threatens the U.S. housing recovery.

And when borrowers, lenders and facilitators come under one roof, the outcome can be surprisingly fast and effective.

Yolanda Mendez, 47, hugged her daughter Patty when her mortgage servicing company slashed the interest rate on her $200,000 mortgage from 9 percent to a fixed rate of 2 percent.

“I don’t have any money. I just couldn’t keep up,” said Mendez, whose family was struggling with the $2,100 monthly payment on the Long Beach, California, home she bought for $80,000 before California housing prices shot up.

Mendez said she got in over her head after a mortgage broker overstated her husband’s income to get a bigger loan.

The new loan terms from American Home Mortgage Servicing Inc will reduce her mortgage payment to $900 a month, a manageable number for Mendez and her husband, who is the family’s sole breadwinner and has had his hours at a printing company drastically reduced.

“Merry Christmas, huh? It’s a beautiful thing,” she said.


Katherine Peoples-McGill spent time on both sides of the table at the event, which like others around the country has attracted tens of thousands of distressed homeowners.

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The 35-year-old works for Neighborhood Assistance Corporation of America (NACA) -- the nonprofit group that hosted the five-day Los Angeles event -- and got the mortgage on her Huntington Beach home modified.

“I’ve had so many grown men cry in front of me” when they finally got their mortgages fixed, said Peoples-McGill.

She negotiated her own fix -- a 20 percent reduction in her own mortgage principal and a fixed interest rate of 2 percent.

“It saved my marriage,” she said.

While many hope that the housing market has found a bottom and can only improve, NACA’s outspoken chief executive, Bruce Marks, takes a far dimmer view.

“This is not getting better. It’s getting worse,” he said.

While Marks says borrowers get some blame for the mortgage mess, he pins the responsibility on banks for offering loans that were unsustainable.

“When you get the blessing of everybody out there, I’m sorry, I don’t blame the homeowners on that,” Marks said.

Still, Marks’ team couldn’t help everyone save their homes.

An elegantly dressed woman rushing out of the event said she won a forbearance on her loan. When asked if she was happy with the short-term relief, she said, “I’ll take it.”

Anxiety, skepticism and frustration ran high among homeowners still waiting for a deal from bankers.

Vietnam veteran Leonard Williams was not confident that he would get relief. After all, the 59-year-old had already spent several months trying to work out a deal with his bank. “I’m still in the home, but we are packing. We don’t have much belief in this.”

If he loses his house, he plans to send his wife home to her mother: “Me? I’ll just live in my truck ... If I’m homeless sleeping in my truck, I don’t want to say I didn’t try.”

Editing by Mary Milliken and Vicki Allen