North Carolina Faces More Foreclosures
WNCN-TV, Jan. 28, 2008
RALEIGH, N.C. --North Carolina's tough mortgage laws, enacted almost a decade ago, have helped the state weather the foreclosure crisis better than most.
But even with additional laws enacted last year to curb what critics call mortgage industry abuses, North Carolina can expect the number of foreclosures to grow, enveloping not only low-income people, but also middle-income families who bought more house than they could afford.
Some of those in trouble have cleared out their 401(k) plans and are using their credit cards to make house payments, said Louise Mack, who provides free housing counseling through a nonprofit group in Cabarrus County.
"The majority of the people are in mortgages that they should have not gotten in," said Mack, whose organization, Prosperity Unlimited, took 80 new clients facing mortgage delinquency or foreclosure during the last three months of 2007, double the number the year before. "They bought too much house than they could have afforded."
When the General Assembly approved a predatory lending law in 1999, it was hailed as a model for the rest of the country.
The law barred companies that offered certain high-interest mortgages - also called subprime loans for people with bad credit histories - from requiring unreasonably high points and fees.
Borrowers couldn't be penalized for paying off the loan early or be forced to make balloon payments.
The General Assembly expanded that law last year to include mortgages with annual percentage rates that are above certain interest benchmarks but were still too low to be covered by the 1999 law.
Reform advocates attribute the changes as one reason why North Carolina's rate of foreclosure starts actually fell from 2005 to mid-2007, while rates in formerly hot markets such California, Nevada and Florida tripled or more.
"The things we have done have done us well to weather the foreclosure crisis," said Mark Pearce, a deputy state banking commissioner who used to work on predatory lending issues for a Durham nonprofit.
But court records show foreclosure starts ultimately rose 9.4 percent in North Carolina in 2007, and with subprime mortgage defaults causing global financial problems, "North Carolina will not be immune from the national problems," Pearce said.
A new House committee is examining the increase in foreclosures in North Carolina and will consider whether the state needs short-term changes or another batch of tougher regulations.
"Nothing provides more of a ticket to the middle class as homeownership," said Rep. Dan Blue, D-Wake, a committee co-chairman, adding that it's the job of elected officials to create "a climate and an environment so our citizens can prosper."
With the Legislature passing five mortgage-related laws last year alone, some state financial trade groups are cautious. They said they're still trying not only to get a handle on the effect of the 2007 changes, but they're also waiting to see what Congress may do to mitigate the mortgage crisis.
"We're very empathetic and sympathetic to the folks that are in trouble," said Bill Bost, general counsel for the North Carolina Association of Mortgage Professionals, a 600-member group of mortgage brokers and lenders. "Anything related to (changing) foreclosure laws can have an adverse effect on the availability of capital in North Carolina."
But the 2007 laws can't help the people who signed unaffordable adjustable loans in the last couple of years.
Borrowers using popular "2-28" adjustable loans, in which they pay a low "teaser" rate for two years before it is reset at a higher rate, can't afford their new payments, speakers said last week at the first meeting of the House Select Committee on Rising Home Foreclosures.
Pearce projected foreclosure starts will grow an additional 10 percent to 20 percent in North Carolina in 2008, reaching as high as 60,000 starts as the economy slows.
"It's one thing to say it's not as bad here in North Carolina," said Josh Stein, consumer protection division chief for Attorney General Roy Cooper. "But for those 60,000 families who are going to go through a foreclosure in 2008, it is a major problem."
Committee speakers seemed most interested in asking the Legislature when it reconvenes in May to set aside state money to pay for more housing and foreclosure counselors such as Mack, who provide their services largely for free.
Pearce said the Legislature could give temporarily more time for borrowers to challenge a foreclosure in court, especially if it involved certain kinds of subprime or nontraditional loans.
Foreclosures often happen fast before a county of clerk of court. Allowing additional time for the borrower to appeal the foreclosure to a Superior Court judge because the loan originator did something unethical could slow the process, Pearce said.
The Legislature also may want to improve upon 2007 laws regulating companies that collect mortgage payments, said Al Ripley, a lawyer for the North Carolina Justice Center.
Bost said homeownership has expanded in the country because of new lending products that sometimes can be complicated to consumers. But restricting these products further could have an unintended result, he said.
"If a few more people get foreclosed upon, then that's the price we pay for more people owning their own homes," he said. "I think we have to decide what we're willing to pay for more homeownership."