Legislators help deal with banks

WASHINGTON – Can’t afford your mortgage payment? If the bank won’t take your call, your member of Congress just might.

Several lawmakers whose districts are drowning in foreclosures are taking unprecedented steps to help people stay in their homes, including picking up the phone themselves to negotiate with banks on behalf of their constituents.

The pain of being put on hold for an eternity can be an educating experience for a member of Congress.

As a body, Congress has failed to come up with a broad fix for the foreclosure crisis. So some lawmakers are helping homeowners one at a time.

Rep. Elijah Cummings, a Maryland Democrat whose Baltimore district has been walloped by unemployment, arranged for 19 banks to set up shop at Morgan State University today to work with homeowners struggling to pay their mortgages.

Cummings is asking people to come to his anti-foreclosure fair with recent pay stubs, tax returns, their monthly budget and any late notices or foreclosure threats they’ve received. He predicted 500 people would show up, a turnout he hopes will help convince the White House that federal money is needed to bail out homeowners directly. “We may very well be reaching the point of a tsunami of foreclosures,” he said.

While Maryland has been hit hard, with more than 390 foreclosure fillings in Baltimore in April alone, it’s worse in California. Some 342,000 U.S. properties fell into foreclosure in April with 96,500 of those filings – more than one in four – in California, according to RealtyTrac.

Rep. Maxine Waters, who represents Los Angeles, has called mortgage lenders directly to seek lower payments for her constituents.

Waters said it’s frustrating. She’s spent more than an hour on hold before, listening to music and getting transferred to different departments.

She said the process can be worse for homeowners who are only slightly behind in their payments. A grossly delinquent homeowner might get a specialist on the line who can modify the loan, Waters said. But other cases are handled by someone who merely threatens homeowners to pay up.

In at least two cases, the congresswoman said, she wasn’t able to resolve the situation until she appealed directly to the chief executive officers of Bank of America and Wells Fargo. Both banks responded favorably, with Wells Fargo even sending Waters a long letter of apology.

“Trying to contact the servicers is an absolute nightmare for anyone,” even a member of Congress, she said.

JPMorgan Chase & Co. said it recently added 950 loan counselors. The bank also has set up a hot line designated solely for congressional staffers trying to ensure their constituents reach a loan counselor.

Other banks are trying as well to become more responsive to congressional offices. Cummings asked a dozen of the nation’s biggest banks to assign an employee to work directly with his office. Most agreed.

In March, Cummings hired a new staffer of his own to work foreclosure cases in his district. Cummings said the mortgage crisis will lift. But he worries thousands more people will be homeless by then.

“It’s not whether the sun will come out,” he said. “It will. But the question is, what will the landscape look like when it does?”