Mortgage help brings holiday hope in DeSoto

Published in The Commercial Appeal

Henry Bailey

Mississippi Special Assistant Attorney General Bridgette Wiggins was in Hernando Tuesday morning to address and meet with citizens at a mortgage-assistance session for distressed homeowners in DeSoto County. Wiggins (left) is seen conferring with Foreclosure Staff Attorney Charles Lee, of the Mississippi Center for Justice.

It’s not a merry season for distressed DeSoto area homeowners with visions of foreclosure or elusive loan modifications dancing in their heads, but at the Gale Center in Hernando on Tuesday, the touring Mississippi Foreclosure Prevention Consortium arrived with a cup of cheer, a passel of information and a lot of hope.

“I’m trying to get my rate lowered,” said Hilda Barkley of the Hernando area. “This has been an ongoing thing for several years.” She came with her parents, “because without them I wouldn’t still be in my house.”

Her mortgage lender, Barkley said, “doesn’t care — they just want their money. I’m just hoping to get someone to hear my problem, that they’ll have a little sympathy.”

Barkley and several dozen others got more than a sympathetic hearing with coffee and doughnuts. They got the weight of the state behind them in pursuing their goals. Organized by Mississippi Atty. Gen. Jim Hood with funding through the recent National Mortgage Settlement with the nation’s five largest lenders, the consortium’s partners offer relief for eligible, struggling homeowners including principal reductions, deferred loan payments, relocation assistance, waiver of deficiency balances — and refinance programs.

“Many Mississippians were unnecessarily hurt in the mortgage foreclosure crisis,” said Hood. “I created this consortium to help victims get restitution and legal advice.” Jan Schaefer, a spokeswoman for Hood, said the program has been expanded beyond loans by Ally/GMAC, Bank of America, Citi, JPMorgan Chase and Wells Fargo to help consumers experiencing problems with any lender.

“We want people to know this consortium is here to help them, and all our services, including legal counsel, are free,” said Bridgette Wiggins, special assistant attorney general in the Consumer Protection Division.

She said that in tour stops so far, “the biggest problem we’re been seeing is people needing assistance in getting their application for loan modification completed. People are running into roadblocks, and our counselors and legal team will be working hard to deal with that.”

Said Charles Lee, foreclosure staff attorney with the nonprofit Mississippi Center for Justice, a consortium partner based in Jackson: “We can help ensure continuity of service. If a client has provided documentation, we can make sure there’s consideration by the lender of a modification package. We can see it through to the end.”

Also part of the consortium are Money Management International, Mississippi Home Corporation, Mississippi Center for Legal Services, North Mississippi Rural Legal Services and the Mississippi Military Department. Representatives are at the tour stops, with information including help through HAMP, the Home Affordable Mortgage Program, and HARP, the Home Affordable Refinancing Program.

“Response has been excellent,” said Wiggins. “In the previous two clinics we saw about 50 people, and we’ve gotten calls from all across the state, because there’s such a need and the state of the economy.”

“People in desperate situations are being scammed,” said Paheadra Robinson, Center for Justice director of consumer protection, citing “bait and switch” practices in which higher, adjustable-rate loans replace promised fixed-term rates at the last moment, and out-of-state outfits that “take what little people have” in fees to prevent foreclosure but deliver nothing. “We’re trying to help some people facing foreclosure sales this week.”

That’s why “the consortium is so crucial,” Robinson said. “We don’t want these tragic things to occur.”

Hernando was the third stop of a tour that began in the Delta with Nov. 20 visits to Greenville and Clarksdale. Tupelo was visited Tuesday afternoon and the team heads to Columbus and Meridian on Wednesday and Jackson and Hattiesburg on Dec. 10. After Gulf Coast clinics in Gautier and Bay St. Louis on Dec. 11, the tour wraps up Dec. 18 with stops in Natchez and McComb.