In Southeast Queens, Epicenter of Housing Bust, Holding Onto Homes Still Elusive

Email a Friend

Juanita Kinloch, 52, bought a modest three-bedroom home in Jamaica, Queens, more than a decade ago. Paying her $2,000 mortgage had always been tough, but when she developed a bone and muscle disease in 2010 that left her unable to work, it became untenable.

Kinloch said she told the bank her situation and applied for a loan modification to help defray some of the costs. For several months she diligently faxed in bank statements, tax forms and pay stubs once she returned to her job as a security guard at a local college.

But her bank denied the modification. She said they never offered explanation. And it was in 2011 after she was diagnosed with breast cancer and was at home recovering that a foreclosure notice was taped to her door.

“And that’s the way I found myself in the position I am in today,” she said.

Kinloch lives in the center of the foreclosure crisis in New York City.  In 2009, the neighborhoods of Jamaica, Hollis, St. Albans and Springfield Gardens had more than 2,000 foreclosures — the most of an area citywide, according to the Furman Center for Real Estate and Urban Policy. Sixty-seven percent of this area is black, and many are Caribbean immigrants.

One- to three-story homes with tidy front yards line block after block of southeast Queens. Neighbors socialize with each other outside and all appears normal. But turn a corner, and a boarded up home or a black padlock on the front door is a reminder of the housing bust that continues to have an impact.

The Obama Administration’s Home Affordable Modification Program or HAMP was intended to keep people in their homes and protect neighborhoods from blight by providing loan modifications to people struggling with hardship and unable to pay their mortgage.

Nearly three years have passed since the foreclosure crisis hit rock bottom in New York City. But the program has had mixed results in Southeast Queens.

Reducing interest rates or extending the term of the loan are two ways lenders modify loans.

They may also reduce principal entirely, which is rare, or defer it to the end of loan, which is more common.

(Photo: Juanita Kinloch at her home in Jamaica Queens. Cindy Rodriguez/WNYC)

Close to 26,000 loan modifications were granted in New York state last year.  During that same period, more than 345,000 mortgages were in default or delinquent, according to Josh Zinner from the Neighborhood Economic Development Advocacy Project.

“You’re pushing the rock up the hill and it’s rolling back at a much higher rate,” Zinner said. “The measures so far that we have to fight foreclosures are inadequate.”

Last month, the Romney campaign offered a broad housing plan that did not include loan modifications. Instead, the plan offered what Romney says is an easier way for homeowners to achieve what is known as a short sale or a deed-in-lieu of foreclosure. Both involve the homeowner relinquishing the property to the lender. The housing plan also called for replacing the Dodd-Frank Act to make credit easier to come by and reforming Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.

Brenda Branch, 65, purchased her first home in St. Alban’s 13 years ago.

“I love it. I’ve done everything I can to keep it and to upgrade it,” she said.

Branch recently fell ill and lost rental income from tenants, leaving her $14,000 behind on her mortgage.

With help from the housing group, Neighborhood Housing Services of Jamaica, she applied for a loan modification and was offered a deal that she accepted but with much trepidation because it included a balloon payment due at the end of 25 years or if she has a late payment.

“It’s going to be $144,131.21,” she said of the lump sum payment at the end of the loan. “If I were a weaker woman, I would cry.”

But the offer also lowers her monthly mortgage to an affordable $900 a month — $1,400 less than what she had been paying. She said she couldn’t pass it up. 

Christie Peale, director of the Center for NYC Neighborhoods, an organization that supports a network of housing counselors and legal advocates, said ideally homeowners with balloon payments will be able to refinance down the road or build enough equity in their homes to sell and cover the cost of the balloon.

“But we are worried about it,” Peale said. “If it’s not kept at the front of our minds it could be another hangover of this crisis.”

Banks receive cash payments for loans modified under the HAMP program. The incentives vary according to how long it takes to achieve the modification.

The Mortgage Bankers Association, a group that advocates on behalf of commercial banks, and mortgage companies and brokers, maintains lenders are motivated to provide loan modifications.

“Particularly in a state like New York, you want to avoid foreclosure because of the length of the process, which is twice as long as it is in a number of other states and also because of the added expense,” ” said Steve O’Connor, vice president of Public Policy.

O’Connor said if people aren’t getting modifications, it’s likely because they don’t qualify or because they submitted incomplete applications.

But Juanita Kinloch believes she is qualified. She earns $40,000 a year, has rental income from her daughter and is trying one more time to submit a loan modification application, this time assisted by Queens Legal Services, an organization that provides free legal help.

Kinloch said she’s never considered walking away from her home. “This house has a lot of good memories,” she said.