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President Comes to Area, Announces Homeowners Bill of Rights

President Barack Obama spoke at the James Lee Community Center in Falls Church on Wednesday, Feb. 1, about his plans to revitalize the stalled housing market. His speech was short and pointed.

President Barack Obama spoke at the James Lee Community Center in Falls Church on Wednesday, Feb. 1, about his plans to revitalize the stalled housing market. His speech was short and pointed. Photo by Victoria Ross.

Fairfax County housing advocates applauded President Barack Obama’s proposed Homeowner’s Bill of Rights, saying it will give homeowners critical protection from predatory lenders and important safeguards when they purchase a home.

Calling the continuing depression in the housing market a "make-or-break" moment for the middle class, Obama told a crowd of about 350 people at the James Lee Community Center in Falls Church on Feb. 2, that he wants to see "a set of common-sense rules of the road that every family knows they can count on when they’re shopping for a mortgage.

"No more hidden fees or conflicts of interest. No more getting the runaround when you call about your loan. No more fine print," the president said to loud applause. "New safeguards against inappropriate foreclosures. New options to avoid foreclosure if you’ve fallen on hardship or a run of bad luck. And a new, simple, clear form for new buyers of a home."

He addressed the local housing market: "Here in Falls Church, home values have fallen by about a quarter from their peak. In places like Las Vegas, more than half of all homeowners are underwater. More than half. So it’s going to take a while for those prices to rise again," he said.

THE AUDIENCE, which included many local housing advocates, cheered when the President took Congress to task for dragging its feet on plans he announced during the State of the Union Address last week to kick-start the stalled housing market.

Reston Interfaith: Keeping People in their Homes

Within the Connections for Hope facility is the office of Martin Rios, Reston Interfaith's Certified Housing Counselor.

"Keeping people in their homes, by any means possible, is the ultimate goal of Reston Interfaith," said CEO Kerri Wilson.

In the past 2 1/2 years, Wilson said Rios has helped more than 150 homeowners in crisis, with about 70 percent remaining in their homes.

For those still in discussion with lenders, Wilson said there is hope that the process will move faster in the future. Reston Interfaith recently received full authorization to access and input mortgage loan modification requests through HOPE LoanPort, which is an online tool created by the Treasury Department specifically for Housing Counselors.

"The paper trail has been decreased greatly, saving weeks and months of waiting since all paperwork is now scanned and uploaded directly to loan servicers," Wilson said. Hundreds of underwriters are part of HOPE LoanPort; in addition, there are options to escalate cases when a decision is not reached in a reasonable timeframe.

Reston Interfaith continues to address housing issues by partnering with the Virginia Housing Development Authority (VHDA) to provide an Introduction to Homeownership class. This class is designed to take the mystery out of the home buying process and help home buyers prepare to make important decisions about purchasing a home.

Local experts in the field of home buying are involved in the training, and they provide answers to questions from class participants. Completion of this class is required by borrowers in order to become eligible for all VHDA loan programs. Classes are offered monthly at Connections for Hope office in English and Spanish.

"Now more than ever, Reston Interfaith is proud to provide these essential services at no cost to persons living in northwestern Fairfax County. Many people facing foreclosure pay thousands of dollars for guidance and then end up losing their property," said Wilson.

For more information about Reston Interfaith’s housing programs, call 703-956-6722.

"I am sending Congress a plan that will give every responsible homeowner in America the chance to save about $3,000 a year on their mortgage by refinancing at historically low rates… What this plan will do is help millions of responsible homeowners who make their payments on time but find themselves trapped under falling home values or wrapped up in red tape."

According to Kerri Wilson, CEO of Reston Interfaith, one of Northern Virginia’s largest social services organizations, the nonprofit has received hundreds of calls since the recession from homeowners facing foreclosure or trying to get lenders’ attention to reduce their mortgage payments.

"We’ve heard from those who have lost their jobs and are afraid of losing their homes and everything they’ve saved for their families. We all know that too many Americans did not fully understand the financial implications of taking out mortgages they could not afford," Wilson said. "Based on our experience then, the Homeowners Bill of Rights will address the issues surrounding foreclosure crisis and offer individuals the help they need to stabilize their budgets and families."

Paula Sampson, executive director of Fairfax County’s Department of Housing and Community Development said the president’s initiative refocuses attention on the still faltering real estate market and the many homeowners who are still struggling.

"A ‘Homeowner’s Bill of Rights’ and the clarity and transparency it would bring to buying a home could be invaluable," Sampson said. "Just think of the thousands of homebuyers who might have avoided a predatory loan or unexpected rate swings, if the information had been clear and understandable at the closing table."

Sam Mayo, a 21-year-old graduate student from Herndon, said he hoped President Obama go another term to complete his plan.

"You just can’t replace his energy. I woke up at 4 a.m., because I was really excited to see the president. My mother knows real estate, and I’ve seen these big empty houses all over Northern Virginia. It’s scary to think about buying a home here," he said.

During his speech, Obama also blasted predatory lending practices, and vowed to tighten regulations.

"(The American people) were hurt. By lenders who sold loans to people who they knew couldn’t afford the mortgages … and banks that packaged those mortgages up and traded them to reap phantom profits, knowing that they were building a house of cards."

"It was wrong. It was wrong," the president said to nods and a buzz of agreement in the audience. "It triggered the worst economic crisis of our lifetimes. And it has been the single biggest drag on our recovery from a terrible recession. Crushing debt has kept millions of consumers from spending."

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Sam Mayo of Herndon said – as a future homebuyer – he was pleased to hear President Obama’s plans for making the process simpler for responsible homebuyers.

He said his plan will allow responsible homeowners to refinance at a lower rate, saving hundreds of dollars each month. "Or you can choose those savings to rebuild equity in your homes, which will help most underwater homeowners come back up for air more quickly," he said.

THE PRESIDENT made it clear that his "aggressive plan" was not designed for those who have been irresponsible.

"This plan, like the other actions we’ve taken, will not help the neighbors down the street who bought a house they couldn’t afford, and then walked away and left a foreclosed home behind…It’s not going to help those who bought multiple homes just to speculate and flip the house and make a quick buck, but it can help those who’ve acted responsibly," he said.

He veered off script, and entertained the audience, when he recalled how confusing it was when he and First Lady Michelle Obama bought their first home.

"Now, think about it…How many of you have had to deal with overly complicated mortgage forms and hidden clauses and complex terms? I remember when Michelle and I bought our first condo -- and we're both lawyers," he said, triggering laughter from the audience. "And we’re looking through the forms and kind of holding it up… reading it again…‘What does this phrase mean?’ And that’s for two trained lawyers."

The president then held up a single sheet of paper.

"So this is what a mortgage form should look like. This is it," he said to loud applause and cheers. "Now that our new consumer watchdog agency is finally running at full steam, now that Richard Cordray is in as the Director of the Consumer Finance Protection Bureau, they’re moving forward on important protections like this new, shorter mortgage form. Simple, not complicated. Informative, not confusing. Terms are clear. Fees are transparent."

After a pause for effect, the president took another shot at Congress to cheers from the audience: "This, by the way, is what some of the folks in Congress are trying to roll back and prevent from happening."

He called the housing crisis "personal," saying it struck at the heart of what it means to be middle class in America. "Our homes, the place where we invest our nest egg, place where we raise our family, the place where we plant roots in a community, the place where we build memories," he said.

He ended his speech with an appeal to Congress. "I urge Congress to act. Pass this plan. Help more families keep their homes. Help more neighborhoods remain vibrant. Help keep more dreams defended and alive. And I promise you that I’ll keep doing everything I can to make the future brighter for this community, for this commonwealth, for this country."

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Quincy Springs, with the Fairfax County Department of Neighborhood and Community Services, said he thought President Obama does not get enough credit for his plans.

Quincy Springs, a Fairfax resident with the County’s Department of Neighborhood and Community Services, said the president was presenting Americans with an "opportunity."

"So many people have experienced job loss, foreclosures and other hardships. He has the right plan, and he doesn’t get the good credit he deserves," Springs said.

Claudia Lupoletti of Burke said she thought Obama struck the right tone in sending a serious message to lenders.

"I’m very happy to hear that he is going to hold lenders accountable and not just homeowners," Lupoletti said. "He’s right about the paperwork. We bought our first home in New York City and it was an all-day process with hundreds of complex forms. I think this is long overdue," she said.

"It is inspiring to see the president move forward to implement a federal response to the mortgage and foreclosure crisis," said Dean Klein, Director of the County’s Office to Prevent and End Homelessness, who attended the event with Pat Harrison, Fairfax County’s Deputy Director. "(The crisis) has impacted so many individuals and families in our community and nationally."

Congressman Gerry Connolly (D-11) issued a brief statement after the president’s speech: "I welcome President Obama back to Northern Virginia. His strong commitment to the economic recovery is obviously heartfelt and I proudly support him in that effort," Connolly said.