Foreclosure counselors dig for hope

More delinquent borrowers need help as Alaska's housing market struggles

Posted: Sunday, July 20, 2008

The nonprofit Consumer Credit Counseling Service of Alaska closed its Juneau office because its clients kept missing their appointments. Counselors assumed people were embarrassed to be seen walking in, and now they stick to phone appointments with the Anchorage office.

Foreclosure counselor Jan Jones can relate to those who fear their house may be sold on the courthouse steps. She nearly lost her own house when Alaska's economy tanked in the 1980s. Her job now is to dig up hope for delinquent borrowers who assume they have none.

"Often times, the first person you talk to when you call the bank is a collector. 'When can you pay me seven grand? I want it by the end of the month!' A lot of people just give up. They figure that's the only answer there is," she said. "It's very sad."

A box of Kleenex sits on every counselor's desk.

Alaska's housing market is not so grim as the national scene, ranking 44th among states with the most delinquencies. But that is not to say it sparkles.

Industry insiders see Alaska's numbers rising this year. A foreclosure analyst for Alaska Trustee LLC, Rose Santiago, said her office handled 775 delinquencies last year. Halfway through 2008, she's already seen about 600 files.

"That's really getting busy, and picking up," she said.

Last month the Mortgage Bankers Association reported the highest proportion of delinquencies and foreclosures among homeowners nationwide since 1979.

Riskier subprime mortgages account for 10.7 percent of surveyed loans in Alaska, compared to 12.7 percent nationwide.

Alaska's subprime mortgages are "performing better," according to Brian Laurent, state economist. Of the subprimes, 7.7 percent were past due in the first quarter this year, and just 2.8 percent were in foreclosure - compare that to the rest of the nation, where 17 percent were past due and 10.7 percent were in foreclosure. In the worst states - Florida, California and Nevada - foreclosures of these loans have passed 14 percent.

But fewer subprime mortgages in Alaska doesn't mean risky loans are unheard of here.

Jones said she had just talked to someone who had a $4,800 monthly income before taxes, and a $3,005 monthly mortgage payment. That mortgage should never have been allowed, she said.

"Juneau's not looking too bad year over year," said Lori Davey, president of Moznik Information Services, who tracks mortgage delinquencies as part of her job.

Notices of default in the Juneau recording district, which includes other parts of Southeast, rose to 73 last year from 45 the year before. Halfway through this year, 32 have been filed.

The data, which lenders file with the state to begin the 105-day foreclosure process, go back only to 2000. But this year's numbers aren't unprecedented.

Foreclosures are a last option for the bank as well as the borrower. If a person has any equity in a house at all, he'll try to sell it. When markets go down, so does equity, and foreclosures go up.

In Juneau, on and RealtyTrac, two Web sites that receive data from mortgage lenders, 13 properties are now scheduled for foreclosure sales.

Ten of those homeowners were contacted by telephone; none wished to comment.

Jones said the CCCS handles about one-third of the foreclosures in the state. She tries to act as an antidote with lenders who tend to assume borrowers brought their trouble upon themselves.

"You don't want to admit you had any fault in this mess America's in right now," she said.

Perhaps the mindset affects their tactics. She has worked with lenders who refuse to talk to both her and the client on speakerphone so they can intimidate said client one-on-one.

How a client is negotiated out of a pickle differs case by case. Success depends less on hard-and-fast rules of engagement, and more on finding a sufficiently kind person with sufficient authority to help. Jones's strongest weapon may be persistence.

But Jones says the system is swamped, as of this year. Mortgage lenders here may not be overwhelmed by their Alaska clients, but more often than not they have business in the foreclosure-busy lower 48 states, too. Departments that deal with foreclosures are understaffed and "months behind," she said. She said she's seeing more sales being postponed, and more disorganization among lenders.

"I have two properties that are not even on the foreclosure radar yet, and they're eight months past due," she said.

A representative for one mortgage lender, Diane Cooper, denied her company had any staffing problems in Alaska. Cooper is the vice president of mortgage servicing in Alaska for Wells Fargo.

"Our position is to make sure we have the staff to deal with customers," she said.

Jones's sympathy does not appear widespread among other actors in the foreclosure process.

Santiago of Alaska Trustee LLC works for the lenders. She deals with borrowers sometimes. But she prefers not to. That is because they tend to take out their anger on her. She is not there to help; she is there to process the papers.

Asked whether she felt anything for the borrowers, Santiago said, "I do, sometimes. But when they get angry, it's like, 'Come on now. It's not our fault that you went through all this.'"

People's stories, she said, tend to sound pretty similar.

"In some part, it's also their fault," she said.

And then there are the flat-out predatory.

"Are you profiting from the Foreclosure Boom?" asks one Internet ad on "We'll tell you how! It's easy ... It's free!"

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