Henrietta woman fights foreclosure to keep her house and wins
by: Erica Bryant
Some think that banks don’t have to help homeowners who have fallen on hard times. “A bank isn’t a social agency,” one reader said in an email after last week’s column about a woman who is fighting foreclosure. “If the customer can’t pay, they take the house.”
Actually, the law requires banks to make a number of specific efforts to help homeowners keep their property. More people need to know their rights, and that there are free resources to help protect them.
Just ask Jean S. Blattner, a Henrietta woman who recently received a mortgage modification that will allow her to keep her home. It took four years, more than a dozen court appearances, many tears and two local non-profit organizations to accomplish this.
Blattner bought a house on Fawn Ridge Road for $125,000 in 2005. She says she never missed a payment until she was laid off from her job as a purchasing agent in 2013. Money was tight and she didn’t pay her mortgage in March and April of 2013. Shortly after, she got a letter from U.S. Bank, which had purchased her mortgage, saying that she was in danger of losing her home.
At first, she tried to navigate on her own, which meant sitting on the phone for hours and being transferred again and again to different bank employees who couldn’t help her. U.S. Bank sent her different letters demanding different amounts of money. When she sent checks towards her debt, U.S. Bank returned them. “They wouldn’t take a nickel,” she said. After seven months of getting nowhere, she was in panic.
At the unemployment insurance office, Blattner had seen a flier offering free housing counseling services through the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. She called the Housing Council, which hosts HUD counseling services, and was connected with foreclosure prevention counselor Christopher Schello. He eventually connected her to Empire Justice Center, where attorney Kevin Purcell took her case.
The foreclosure process can be maddening, even to attorneys who deal with it for a living, Purcell said. But free counseling and legal services can help distressed homeowners avoid certain pitfalls that can hurt a person’s chances of getting a loan modification, extension or lower interest rate. For example, if a mortgage holder asks for your bank statement, you have to send all pages, even if the last page printed is blank. If you don’t mail that blank page, the bank will say that it did not receive the document. It will probably not tell you that you need to send the blank page, so it is likely that you will repeat the mistake.
Average people don’t often have hours in the middle of the day to spend on the phone trying to get through to bank employees who can help them. Or to deal with lost documents, confusing, incorrect and conflicting requests and other problems.
“People ask all the time ‘are the banks evil?’” said Purcell. “I tend to blame it more on incompetence.” He said that banks have not set up processes that can handle the volume of homeowners who are facing foreclosure. The bank employees who are in charge of delinquent mortgages are often overwhelmed and undertrained.
The problem has been widespread. In 2013, U.S. Bank was among the 10 banks that agreed to pay $8.5 billion dollars in a federal lawsuit because they mishandled foreclosure paperwork and skipped mandated steps in the foreclosure process. The money was probably small comfort to the thousands of people who were unjustly forced to leave their homes, a profoundly traumatic experience.
Blattner feared this would happen to her and said she often left her court appearances in tears. She credits Schello and Purcell with encouraging her not to give up as the process dragged on, the paperwork piled up and the bank wouldn’t take payments. “I had $20,000 in the bank and they wouldn’t take it,” she said. “I was dumbfounded.”
Meanwhile, bank representatives kept calling to encourage her to accept a short sale of her home. Blattner refused because she didn’t want to lose all she had worked for. “I was proud of the fact that I was a working woman and I put myself through school and I bought myself a home,” she said.
U.S. Bank did not respond to questions about Blattner’s experience before the deadline for this column. But her story has a happy ending. She got a job with Children Awaiting Parents. After 4 years and countless hours of effort, she has reached an agreement with U.S. Bank to modify her loan. Her missed payments will be added to the back end of her mortgage. She has planted new hostas and flowers at the property and sent thank you notes to Schello and Purcell. She encourages any homeowner who is falling behind on mortgage payments or facing foreclosure to seek help quickly. “You have got to stand your ground,” she said. “I saved my home because of non-profits that supported me.”
Rochester has four HUD-approved Housing Counseling Agencies that offer free foreclosure prevention assistance. For more information call The Housing Council at Pathstone at (585) 546-3700, Consumer Credit Counseling Service of Rochester at (585) 546-3440, Marketview Heights Association at (585) 423-1540 or Urban League of Rochester at (585) 325-6530.
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