Foreclosure’s unrelenting tide

Joblessness and lenders’ reluctance to alter terms pushing filings higher

By Jenifer B. McKim
Globe Staff / July 23, 2009

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Despite federal efforts to stem the tide of foreclosures, more Massachusetts homeowners are being pushed to the edge by unemployment and lenders’ reluctance to reduce mortgage payments, according to housing specialists.

Nicolas Retsinas, director of Harvard University’s Joint Center for Housing Studies, said the recession’s strength has so far overpowered the Obama administration’s efforts to get lenders to help struggling homeowners stay in their homes. Obama’s $75 billion federal plan unveiled in February provides incentives for lenders to make loans more affordable.

“People are losing their jobs, and they can’t pay their mortgages even if they want to,’’ Retsinas said. “The emerging problem is the problem of job losses.’’

Lenders in Massachusetts filed 13,813 foreclosure petitions - the initial step in the foreclosure process - during the first six months of 2009, an increase of 5.6 percent from the same period last year, according to data released yesterday by Warren Group, a company that tracks local real estate data. In June, 2,835 homeowners received foreclosure notices, up 21.7 percent from May.

At the same time, foreclosure deeds - the final step in the process - dropped by 29.4 percent during the first six months of the year, Warren Group said. There were 4,737 foreclosure deeds recorded in Massachusetts from January through June, compared with 6,707 during the same period last year. In June, the number of foreclosure deeds increased by 6.7 percent to 621, from 582 in May.

Despite the drop in the number of deeds filed, people are still losing their homes in increasing numbers, said attorney Paul Collier, director of litigation at the WilmerHale Legal Services Center, Harvard Law School’s clinical teaching facility in Jamaica Plain. Collier said deed filings decreased following a March decision in Massachusetts Land Court that invalidated two foreclosures because the lenders failed to show proof they held title to the properties. The ruling prompted concern throughout the lending industry and is stalling sales of foreclosed properties, he said.

“If the lenders were doing fewer foreclosures, petitions would not be going up,’’ said Collier. “Lenders are not modifying or engaging in any meaningful efforts to save folks’ homes.’’

Timothy M. Warren Jr., chief executive of Warren Group, said the increase in the number of petitions filed is “troubling,’’ especially in light of the government incentives for lenders to aid struggling homeowners.

“We’re seeing more people in the initial state of foreclosure,’’ Warren said. “Researchers have questioned whether these loan modifications are really sufficient to help homeowners.’’

Foreclosure petitions plunged in May 2008 after the state passed a so called right-to-cure law requiring lenders to give struggling borrowers 90 days to catch up with missed payments. But filings started increasing three months later and are now at their highest level in 13 months.

Rachel English, a community organizer in Chelsea, said she is seeing a growing number of people facing foreclosure, many of whom are confused by the complex paperwork involved. Some borrowers, she said, have received loan modifications, but often end up with payments equal to or larger than what they were previously paying. That’s because lenders often incorporate past-due payments and unpaid interest into loan modifications.

“People are definitely feeling hopeless,’’ English said. “We are trying to change this mind-set.’’

Jenifer McKim can be reached at