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Hurricane Sandy Victims Say Mortgage Companies Dismiss Pleas For Loan Help

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HURRICANE SANDY MORTGAGE
A man walks by destroyed homes along the beach this week in the Rockaway neighborhood of the Queens borough of New York City. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images) | Getty Images

In the days after Hurricane Sandy devastated coastal New York and New Jersey, the nation's mortgage companies were quick to offer sympathy to those whose homes -- and lives -- were wrecked.

"If you were harmed or if you know someone that was harmed, please feel this virtual hug that I’m sending your way right now," a writer for Quicken Loans said on the company's "Zing!" blog, which offers customers "amazing insights on money, home and life."

Another Quicken blogger sent "thoughts and prayers" to East Coast storm victims.

But words of support, say some people who live in storm-ravaged neighborhoods, haven't translated into what they most need: a temporary break from paying their monthly mortgage bill while they make emergency repairs, negotiate with insurance companies and apply for federal aid.

The Huffington Post spoke with five homeowners who live in coastal areas of New York City, who said that they contacted their mortgage company after the storm, and either didn't hear back, or were offered insufficient relief -- a two-week grace period, for example, or a loan suspension with a lump sum due in a few months.

All five owned homes that sustained significant flood damage and required expensive repairs. Most said that they missed work in the weeks following the storm, and lost wages.

As a result, these borrowers said, they were forced to choose from a palette of unpleasant financial choices. Should they miss a few payments, triggering late fees and possibly a foreclosure? Should they put off replacing windows and floors, boilers and bathrooms, risking additional damage from mold and the ravages of winter? Should they take on more debt?

"Honestly, at this point, I don't know what to do," said Hulya Kartal, whose home in the Sheepshead Bay section of Brooklyn flooded with five feet of storm water.

Just a few months ago, Kartal said, her future seemed bright. Kartal and her husband were planning to move into the home from a rental apartment. Kartal is expecting her first child in February.

The storm washed away those plans. Her home, a bungalow a few blocks from the water, is a disaster. The interior walls are gone. The appliances and plumbing are ruined. A long crack traces a scar down one wall.

"When I open the door now I see nothing to remind me that this is my house," Kartal said.

The home sustained about $100,000 in damage, according to one contractor's estimate. Kartal owes $230,000 on her loan, but the house is almost certainly now worth less than that.

Worse, she discovered belatedly that her insurance policy does not cover flood damage.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency turned down her application for aid because tenants were living in the house, she said the agency told her. FEMA suggested she apply for relief from the Small Business Administration, which also rejected her claim, she said.

Kartal is appealing these decisions. She also asked her mortgage company, Quicken Loans, for a break from making her $1,500 monthly payments. At first, she was offered an extra 15 days, she said. A company representative said that was the "best they could do," she said.

Quicken Loans spokesman Jordan Fylonenko said in an email that the company could not comment on Kartal's specific circumstances for privacy reasons.

"Our policies concerning forbearance for clients whose loans we are servicing and whom have had the unfortunate experience of facing major natural disasters are flexible and accommodating," the Fylonenko said.

Several days after The Huffington Post first contacted Quicken Loans, and shortly before this story was published, the company called Kartal to offer a 90-day loan suspension, or "forbearance." It also offered an installment plan for Kartal to repay the missed payments over time.

Kartal said she would have liked to have longer -- Fannie Mae rules, for example, permit forbearances of up to a year. But, she said, the payment break is some help.

It is impossible to say how many other homeowners need mortgage payment relief and aren't getting it. Renee Cadmus, an attorney at MFY Legal Services, which represents people who can't afford private lawyers, said she thinks "the scope of the problem is quite large." Cadmus said that she has spoken with "many" homeowners at free legal clinics whose homes were damaged by the storm, and who told her that their mortgage company wasn't responding to requests for help.

Banks and other mortgage companies aren't required to offer customers in disaster areas special assistance. The complicated relationship between the various stakeholders -- the entities and individuals that own loans and the institutions like Quicken that service them -- means that offering payment relief isn't always as easy as it might seem.

Still, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, which own or control about half of all outstanding mortgages -- including Kartal's -- have authorized loan servicers to suspend payments for up to one year without having to ask permission.

"We strongly encourage the [mortgage companies] to give the homeowners the help they need," said Andrew Wilson, a Fannie Mae spokesman.

Some banks that service loans, including JPMorgan Chase, seem to be offering help to any borrower in an affected area who asks -- no application required. Amy Bonitatibus, a spokeswoman for JPMorgan Chase, said that "several thousand" customers have received a 90-day payment suspensions and that the bank will work with customers on a plan to repay that debt over time.

Other lenders' policies aren't as clear.

A few blocks from Kartal, also in the Sheepshead Bay neighborhood, homeowner Voldemar Bank spent a recent day using kerosene-fueled heater to dry out his house, with the hope of preventing mold. Doing so meant another missed day of work as a gas station attendant. Bank estimated he has lost at least two weeks worth of wages since the storm.

Bank said he still doesn't know when his insurance company might pay on his claim, nor does he know how much it might pay. That's why he asked HSBC, which collects payments and otherwise services his home loan on behalf of Fannie Mae, for help.

A notice on the Internet home page for HSBC Mortgage Services says the bank "understands the effects of the storm and is ready to help our customers get through these tough times."

In response to Bank's call, HSBC sent an application to enroll in a government-sponsored program designed for people who want to adjust the terms of their mortgage. But modifying a mortgage is a long, tedious process that requires voluminous financial documentation. In Bank's case, those documents were destroyed in the flood, and he would have had to gather them anew.

Bank complained, and he said HSBC offered an alternative: a 90-day loan suspension, or forbearance, with the full amount -- $3,600 in missed payments -- due when the three months are up.

The offer was "a recipe for default," said his lawyer, Sara Manaugh at South Brooklyn Legal Services, a legal nonprofit. She blamed Fannie Mae, in part, for not giving loan servicers like HSBC clear directives about how they should handle the repayment of a forbearance.

"Our guidance is designed to give servicers flexibility," said Wilson, the Fannie Mae spokesman.

Neal McGarity, an HSBC spokesman, said he could not directly address specific questions about Bank's case, citing the bank's customer privacy policy.

"HSBC has programs available to help those in need which include forbearance plans and loan modifications and offers them according to the terms of a customer's loan," McGarity said in an email.

HSBC pledged $1 million to disaster recovery efforts, including a $500,000 donation to the American Red Cross, the company said in a press release. The bank also said it was "working with community partners who provide emergency housing and financial assistance in the storm-impacted areas."

For veterans of the foreclosure wars, the stories trickling out of the flood zones are a depressing echo of those told by tens of thousands of people who have tried in recent years to modify the terms of their mortgage at a lower cost under a federal program designed to help those affected by the housing market collapse. Many of the complaints are the same: unreturned phone calls, unclear or inconsistent directives, and offers of aid, when they come, insufficient to the need.

A few weeks ago, New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman issued a stern warning to Wells Fargo that the bank's plan to delay modification decisions in Sandy-affected areas violated the national mortgage settlement, reached in March.

For homeowners, the missteps seem likely to further cement negative views about the mortgage industry.

"It is normal for a bank," said Angela Kogan, a home health attendant whose Staten Island home flooded with five feet of water. Kogan said she has called Indymac Mortgage Servicing, part of One West Bank, several times. But she hasn't gotten a response, she said.

One West did not respond to a request for comment.

"Sometimes I think there are no people working there," Kogan said.

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