Mortgage Hearing

On Tuesday night, the 8th there was a hearing held at the Capital Senior Center in Columbia, right USC beside campus. The hearing had to do with something that a lot of Americans are finding themselves plagued with- the possibility of loosing their homes.

In case anyone’s been living under a rock, that nation had been going through what some have defined as a “Foreclosure Crisis”.  Some people may be removed enough to have just heard about it. I know, myself being in my early 20s- I have lots of friends looking for their first home purchase and delighted about the fact that foreclosed homes are little diamonds in the rough. Super cheap, not terrible condition, and easy to attain. That is as close as I have come to the crisis, but on Tuesday night I got to hear a different perspective.

There were many people present at the meeting, and many different groups represented. At the front of the room sat a panel of Senators that comprise the Banking and Insurance committee for the SC State Senate.  This is a pretty heavy-duty committee for those familiar with the politico world, and most of the committee members were there. To be exact: Senators Pinckney, Reese, Rose, Hayes, Martin, O’Dell, and Ford. Of course, everyone here at UWASC is a little partial to Sen. Hayes seeing how he is our awesome State Employee Campaign Chairman. Attorney General Alan Wilson (who, as some may know, is the son of our distinguished Congressional Rep. Joe Wilson) was present, along with a representative from his agency- Jay Smith.
To the left of the room sat the representatives of the support structure for the relief efforts of those affected by the Foreclosure Crisis: the Director of the Department of Consumer Affairs- Carrie Liebarker, the Associate Commissioner of Consumer Finance- Jim Copeland, the Executive Director of Appleseed Legal Justice- Sue Berkowitz, and Director of SC HELP- Matt Rivers.

(Chief of Staff -Director of Research for the committee- Mary Riley and the other senate staff were close at hand also)

The meeting opened up with an address from AG Wilson reassuring the audience that this is an issue his office is working hard on and taking seriously. He said that all 50 states are involved in the process and that all Attorney Generals from around the country   are working together to solve the problem with some semblance of balance. “We want to let this panel know that our office is intimately this and we are in constant contact with other offices throughout the country” .Wilson also gave the office phone number (803-734-3970) and told anyone to call with any concern or comments. Jay Smith, also from the AG office, offered to help anyone directly if they called and asked for him specifically.

Next Matt Rivers, the Director of SC HELP (South Carolina Homeownership and Employment Lending Program) to explain the program and how its available to help those who are in most need. The United States Treasury created this program to help people facing the possibility of foreclosure. He explained that the legislation creating the fund doesn’t ‘sunset’ (politico term referring to the provision in a law that gives it a concrete end date for the program or act to cease having effect…unless more legislation is drawn up to extend the date) until 2017, and is more geared towards people with short-term problems. Short term problems resulting from situations like loss of a job, decrease in pay, death of a spouse…circumstance unforeseeable that have created an unfavorable situation for the homeowners. South Carolina alone has received 290 million from the U.S. Treasury that it must use in this program.

SC HELP can aide homeowners different ways- it is made up of three components or tracks designed to fit the variety of needs in different home owners.

1. They can provide monthly payment assistance.
a.    For qualified buyers they can bring them current
b.    They can then make the full mortgage payment for a length of time (6-24 months).

2. They can provide direct loan assistance (reinstatement). This is for people who can afford the monthly payment, but have a ‘dark cloud’ of financial struggle they can come out from under.

3. Lastly they can provide property disposition or transition assistance. This is designed for households that are not going to recover.  SC HELP can give a grant for a new home, help with moving expenses, or grant directly to the homeowner with no subordinate leans.

Rivers also noted that many ask what the catch is to this aide, to which he replied that there really aren’t any. The only thing that could be considered a ‘catch’ is that with the first two tracks- SC HELP must put a lean against the property. However, the lean is fully forgivable after five years and with no interest. Also there are some restrictions- the maximum mortgage amount that they can assist with is $729,750,000 and the maximum assistance limit is $36k (each component has individual limits as well). Also, SC HELP can not negotiate on a modification or after the order of foreclosure/sale has been issued.

According to Rivers, the most important factor in having the program turn out the best is the motivation of the homeowner. He stressed that the most success is possible if the homeowner comes to SC HELP at an early stage in the process.  That the earlier they can get to work on the problem, the more likely it will be resolved in timely manner. In many cases the timeline is drug out by the lending institution, and that is when the will and fortitude of the homeowner really comes into play.

(to contact SC HELP go to or call toll free at 855-435-7472)
After Rivers’ address the panel and Rivers fielded questions from the audience. The questions ranged from inquiries about qualifications or documentation needed to apply to SC HELP to efforts made to raise awareness of the program among the rural community. Rivers assured that there have been ‘numerous amounts of time building outreach’ in rural communities, even going so far as to meet with church and civic groups “anyone that would carve out 20 minutes” they were willing to talk to. SC HELP has also amped up mailing to those who are just beginning to receive unemployment compensation- in hopes of creating awareness before the problem gets too far.

Two speakers lent poignancy to the event. One was a former member of the House of Representatives, and when standing at the podium to speak- the Senators pointed out that he had also been on the Honor Guard at Arlington National Cemetery, even having had the honor of carrying former president John F. Kennedy’s casket. This was former Representative Jim Felder. He shared that he knew that so much more could be done about the foreclosure crisis and now that he is informed of the options he can do his share in spreading awareness. He added that he had a concern about the outreach of the SC HELP program but that it seemed like a great benefit to the citizens of South Carolina.

The other speaker preceded Rep. Felder and identified herself only as Ms. West. She related a story that seemed more like a horrible nightmare than a tale of Home Ownership. Ms. West said the ordeal began in 2004 when she had been laid off. There were applications for, approvals, reversals, cancelations, and losses of modifications on her loan. The lending agency had sold her mortgage, gone back on its word, not informed her of her protection from late fees under the Predatory Lending Act, “lost” her paperwork. Ms. West said that neither NACA (Neighborhood Assistance Corporation of America) nor the HOA (Home Owner’s Association) could help and that she is about to loose her home. She relayed her frustration about the manipulation and legal fraud prevalent in the current system.

Sadly, Sue Berkowitz and the Senators on the panel said that her story was neither unfamiliar nor uncommon.

The Senators and Berkowitz then talked about different strategies for legitimizing the system and improving the legislation they’ve filed- (S.702) to put new requirements on lenders.

This hearing, much like the last hearing I blogged about is exactly why ordinary citizens can and should be involved. By hearing Ms. West’s story I gained a new perspective on the plight of my neighbors and better insight as to how the economy affects everyone.  People who are well informed, like Rep. Felder, can gain even more knowledge and use their positions in the community to disseminate information. Programs like SC HELP described by Matt Rivers can be explained in simpler terms. Legislators like those on the panel can be exposed to new ideas and innovations simply by listening to those present. Connections like Jay Smith at the Attorney General’s office can be made. Being involved truly pays off, not just for the people who are involved but for everyone else around them.

I would advocate that every citizen should be informed or participating in an issue they are passionate about. If not mortgage foreclosures- then maybe Voter ID Education, as Rep. Felder said he was heavily involved in. Or the healthiness and well being of children like was seen at the JCLCC hearing. Living in a democracy is beautiful, and although things may be rough right now- this is how we can fix them together.