The New York Times

In New Jersey, Dreams Of A Better Life Dashed By Foreclosure Crisis

The New York Times — Sunday, May 17, 2009


IRVINGTON — THE boarded-up houses of Grove Street are multiplying, taunting Cassandra Sparrow as she fights to keep her home.

Ms. Sparrow has lived in her single-family house on the street since 1995, when she had a well-paying job as a lab technician and bought the house, for $79,000, to share with her companion. But about six years ago, Ms. Sparrow learned she had lupus. "I loved my work," she said. "But it makes my arms swell up."

She has not been able to keep a full-time job in the years since because of the pain from the swelling and has applied for Supplemental Security Income, a disability benefit. As she waits to be approved, she has fallen more than $18,000 behind on her mortgage payments over about two years. Without help, she said, she will most likely lose her house this summer.

If it were foreclosed, it would join eight boarded-up houses on her block, in a neighborhood that is increasingly deserted and one of the worst hit in the metropolitan New York area by home mortgage foreclosures, according to street-level mapping analysis of foreclosure data by The New York Times.

The shuttered houses and for-sale signs in Irvington and neighboring Newark have helped give Essex County a foreclosure rate almost double the overall rate in the region. So many homeowners are at least 90 days behind on their mortgage payments that the delinquency rate in Essex exceeds that of Genesee County, Mich. – home of Flint, a symbol for cities economically devastated by the sinking fortunes of America's auto industry.

At least 6 percent of Essex County homes – more than 10,000 in all – have been in foreclosure since 2005, the highest rate of any county in New Jersey, New York City, Long Island or the Connecticut suburbs, according to an analysis by The Times of more than 182,000 homes in foreclosure around the region from 2005 through August 2008.

More than 82,000 of those homes are in New Jersey. Plot them on a map, and it becomes clear that no corner of the state has escaped the economic downturn. Nor has the picture improved since last summer. Delinquency rates in 13 of New Jersey's 21 counties are now among the highest in the region.

The problem has hit heaviest in the state's urban areas – cities including Newark, Paterson, Elizabeth and Willingboro – where most residents are black or Hispanic, according to an analysis by The Times of data from American Foreclosures Inc., publishers of In New Jersey's mostly black census tracts, more than 9 percent of homes have been in foreclosure since 2005 – more than four times the rate for mostly white tracts. In primarily Hispanic areas, the rate was more than 6 percent, triple the rate in mostly white tracts.

Nationally, a report issued Tuesday by the Pew Hispanic Center said that gains made in homeownership over the past decade by African-Americans and native-born Latinos were tied disproportionately to relaxed lending standards and subprime loans and that the gains had eroded faster in the downturn than those of whites.

"It's like people just walked away," said Frank Perry, 65, who has lived on Grove Street for 25 years, moving here when the area was filled with working-class families. Now, fed up with the neighborhood's deterioration, he is planning to sell his house, despite the depressed real estate market.

The people coping with foreclosure in these neighborhoods include longtime owners like Ms. Sparrow who have lost their income because of the recession or illness. Others who are struggling include local investors, some of whom bought multifamily units when mortgage loans were easy to obtain but have had trouble finding reliable renters.

The mayor of Newark, Cory A. Booker, rents an apartment in the city owned by one of those investors. "They bought one or two or three homes and thought they could get their money back from a rental," Mr. Booker said, adding that his own grandfather made similar investments – and lots of money – in Los Angeles in the 1980s.

Many Newark owners "acquired properties in a nefarious manner," the mayor said. Others, like his landlord, "saw in our city a place to invest, and got caught in the greatest modern scam and housing bubble."

Between 2005 and 2007 – the period of risky subprime lending faulted for many of today's economic woes – high interest rates were assigned to more than one in five mortgage loans sold to New Jersey borrowers buying primary residences, a New York Times analysis of federal mortgage lending data found. Black and Hispanic borrowers were more than three times as likely to end up with high-cost loans as white borrowers, which helps explain why areas with a large percentage of minority residents are seeing much higher foreclosure rates.

Linda E. Fisher, a professor at the Seton Hall University School of Law who studies mortgage fraud and who represents borrowers in Newark, said that in black neighborhoods with high rates of subprime lending, fraud at some point in the mortgage process "was near universal."

In the last year, Professor Fisher said, a new scheme aimed at borrowers has become more common: so-called modification scams in which borrowers are asked for upfront fees in exchange for help modifying their loans. And foreclosure rescue schemes involving straw purchasers have increased faster than prosecutors can contain them, she said.

The number of residential mortgages with payments more than 90 days past due, a strong precursor to foreclosure, has grown much worse across the state since the start of 2007, when the interest rates on many of these high-cost mortgages began adjusting upward, making them unaffordable for many borrowers.

The percentage of mortgages 90 days past due was above 3 percent in only two New Jersey counties – Essex and Cumberland – in 2006. At the time, that delinquency rate was more than double the state average. That grew to 8 counties in 2007 and 17 in 2008; in March, all but one of the state's 21 counties – Hunterdon – had delinquency rates of 3 percent or more.

Among states, New Jersey had the 10th-highest mortgage delinquency rate in March, according to preliminary data from First American CoreLogic, which collects data representing an estimated 85 percent of all outstanding mortgages nationwide. New Jersey's rate, 5.9 percent, was a full percentage point higher than those of New York and Connecticut, but about eight points lower than top-ranked Florida's.

With no end in sight to the foreclosures, local authorities are scrambling to get ahead of a crisis that threatens cities like Newark, which estimates that 2,500 homes – almost 10 percent of all noncommercial residential properties – are in some stage of the foreclosure process. The Newark/Essex County Foreclosure Prevention Taskforce has sent volunteers on walkabouts through the most devastated corners, tearing down signs for foreclosure rescue schemes and directing homeowners to housing counselors.

Newark has also received a share from about $64 million in federal neighborhood stabilization funds that have flowed into the state: It is using its allotment to provide loans to nonprofit groups to help them acquire and renovate small rental properties. "This is really a trench fight for us," Mayor Booker said. Impoverished neighborhoods that showed signs of stabilizing are in danger of slipping backward because of foreclosures. "That's my fear," he said. "But it's not a fait accompli."

The last year has seen a raft of new efforts by legislators and the Corzine administration to respond to the crisis. In January, the state's judiciary began a court-sponsored mediation program for homeowners; so far, the program has received more than a thousand requests for help. New laws require lenders to tell municipalities about foreclosures, and several programs run by the state's Housing and Mortgage Financing Agency offer loans to struggling homeowners and provide funds so that nonprofit agencies can hire and train more counselors.

But given the depth of the crisis, some say much more action is needed. Diane Sterner, executive director of the Housing and Community Development Network of New Jersey, said more pressure needed to be put on lenders, including requiring them to provide more information about their efforts to resolve foreclosures as well as to pay a fee when they foreclose to help finance state efforts to keep people in their homes.

Ms. Sterner said the growing catalog of state and federal aid programs was essential but still confusing to the various counselors and lenders charged with implementing them. "More could be done to make them user-friendly," she said.

The Obama administration has only recently put together the pieces of its two-month-old plan to help homeowners avoid foreclosure. "The homeowner is left with their fingers crossed," said Tom Margiotta, a housing counselor who works for the City of Paterson and is a former mortgage banker. In the last six months, he said, he has counseled 136 clients, and was able to help all but 40 of them modify their loans.

Many of Mr. Margiotta's clients have loans that will adjust early next year. The foreclosures look "kind of like a mountain," he said. "And we're not on the downside."

The effects of the crisis have reached beyond homeowners to their tenants. A block from Ms. Sparrow's house on Grove Street, Andrea Lee, 45, is one of the state's thousands of nervous renters told by their landlord that his or her mortgage loan was delinquent. "He told me if it got desperate, he would let me know," she said.

When Ms. Lee was younger and living in Newark, Irvington was where families wanted to move, she said. Grove Street "was so pretty," she said. "Now, every other house is abandoned or burned down. It went straight downhill. Not a bumpy road – straight down."

Standing on her porch, Ms. Sparrow became visibly upset remembering a time when she kept up her home, before it was embarrassing to let a visitor inside. The trash behind the boarded-up house next door ensures a steady traffic of rats, she said.

Friends and relatives have helped her with money, including her brother Rory Sparrow, a former basketball player with the New York Knicks. But she said she had not gone back to him. "He has his own problems," she said.

A mediation counselor who works at New Jersey Citizen Action, Wade Wheeler, said Ms. Sparrow's monthly mortgage payments would be reasonable – about $1,200 – if she were able to get the disability payments she has applied for and could persuade the bank to add her arrears to her loan principal. "We're just asking for a couple of months' forbearance," he said – enough time, maybe, to keep Ms. Sparrow in her house.

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