Tina Kotson of Springfield, a homeowner of five years, said she thought it would be fairly easy to refinance her current 5.65 percent mortgage and take advantage of today’s lower rates.
"I think we are homeowners any mortgage company would value. We pay our mortgage in full and on time, and we have excellent credit scores," Kotson said. "But I was surprised at how much things had changed when I called lenders to refinance a few weeks ago."
She said because her home has lost nearly $100,000 in value since she and her husband purchased it in 2007, lenders told her she could only refinance up to 90 percent of the appraised value, which meant bringing nearly $50,000 to the table at closing.
"They told me there’s no impetus to refinance folks who are paying their mortgage and not in threat of foreclosure. It was very frustrating," Kotson said.
But Kotson said she was hopeful refinancing would be within reach after President Barack Obama announced a Homeowners Bill of Rights in Fairfax County last week.
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.1, that the goal of his proposal is to make it easier for borrowers to refinance their loans, and get out from under oppressive mortgages.
"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."
Fairfax County housing advocates applauded the president’s plan, saying it will give homeowners critical protection from predatory lenders and important safeguards when they purchase a home.
THE AUDIENCE 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.
"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."
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."
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, the 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."
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.