Foreclosure fairs offer advice, support to desperate homeowners |

Foreclosure fairs offer advice, support to desperate homeowners

Evelyn Nieves, Associated Press Writer

MERCED ” An overflow crowd piled into the Merced Civic Center, spilling out of the main auditorium, into the halls and down the stairs.

Some brought babies, others elderly parents. Everyone brought paperwork ” the sum of their financial lives and wreckage of their American Dream.

The recent foreclosure prevention fair on a brilliant Saturday afternoon was the place to be in Merced, a city of 65,000 best known as the gateway to Yosemite National Park.

The fair was one of the first of a series of events planned in March, or what local politicians are calling “Foreclosure Prevention Month,” to help desperate homeowners in and around the northern San Joaquin Valley.

The world’s most fertile farm region, the San Joaquin Valley includes three metro areas ” Stockton, Modesto and Merced ” with some of the highest foreclosure rates in the nation.

“Clearly we’ve got a crisis,” said Democratic Rep. Dennis Cardoza, whose district includes much of the Valley. “You look around this auditorium and think this is America, hard-working family people who go to church on Sunday and want good schools for their kids.”

More and more family friendly foreclosure fairs are taking place in hard-hit cities and towns across the country. This month begins a series of “Homeownership Preservation Forums” sponsored by HOPE NOW, a collaboration of nonprofit, corporate and government partners, including HUD.

Organizers of the Merced fair had worried that attendance would suffer from too little notice; instead, they were overwhelmed by the response.

That same day, another 200 mobbed a fair in Los Banos, an old farming city of 35,000 residents, also in Merced County. Five percent of Los Banos’ 10,000 houses have already foreclosed and another five percent are expected to foreclose in the coming months, Cardoza said.

“You’re talking 10 percent of an entire city becoming homeless,” Cardoza said. “I don’t know how much worse things can get.”

Already, the valley’s Stanislaus County, which includes Modesto, is number four on the national rankings of foreclosure rates complied by RealtyTrac, a San-Diego-based firm that monitors foreclosures. San Joaquin County, which includes Stockton, is number two on the list, edged out of the top spot in the latest list by Detroit.

Sleepy Merced County, number five in RealtyTrac’s national foreclosure rankings, also has other numbers to worry about: in January, the county’s unemployment rate climbed to 13.3 percent, up from 11.9 percent in December, according to figures released last week by the California Employment Development Department. In contrast, the state unemployment rate was about 6 percent, and the national unemployment rate about 5.3 percent.

The median home price in Merced County in January was $215,000, down 33.8 percent from a year earlier, according to DataQuick Information Systems, a real estate research firm. In some towns in the county, such as Atwater, housing values have dropped 50 percent, officials said.

The number of chronically homeless people, or those who end up homeless for at least a year, also is growing. In a recent survey of 104 chronically homeless adults, five said they had been homeless for over a year after losing their houses to foreclosure. City leaders expect the numbers to increase.

At the Merced Foreclosure Prevention Fair, homelessness was a big concern for families. In random interviews with six families, four of whom had already received eviction notices from their lenders, all said they weren’t sure where they’d go once forced out of their homes.

“We’re three payments behind, which they told us here is not that terrible,” said Elizabeth Gomez. “If we can’t hold on, we’re lost.”

Most families had similar tales of woe. One couple said the same broker who had written their loan in 2005 promising he would help them refinance it to a 30-year fixed rate when the teaser rate of two percent expired refused to take their calls. Their mortgage on a $300,000 house mushroomed from about $900 to over $2,000.

They wearily took their place in the auditorium. Like the waiting room of a motor vehicle department office, everyone had numbers and spent up to three hours waiting for help.

No one was sure how many people at the fair would actually be able to avert foreclosure. Both fairgoers and officials complained that lenders have, for the most part, rejected pleas to help negotiate loans or forestall foreclosure with a payment agreement.

“The key after today’s workshop is the follow-up,” said state Rep. Cathleen Galgiani, who helped organize the month’s fairs.

Another Foreclosure Prevention Month fair is coming up in Stockton . Officials, anticipating a high turnout, are bringing bottled water and holding the event in the San Joaquin County fairgrounds.

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