Long way home: Foreclosures drop, but ‘zombie’ properties remain

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Hector Reyes, 40, sought and was denied remodification several times on his property. The house went into foreclosure, and Reyes couldn’t pay his mortgage for three years while fighting it. He finally found Neighborhood Housing Services of Chicago, who helped him win remodification of his mortgage last September. | Richard A. Chapman/Sun-Times

Hector Reyes could probably write a book on the nightmares of fighting foreclosure.

It would include unexpected financial hits, unsuccessful pleas to the bank to renegotiate a mortgage, bad advice, a battle for loan modification, and scam attorneys.

“After three years of fighting, I was like, ‘You know what? I’m going to let this house go.’ It’s worth three times less than what I owe. I don’t know what I’m fighting for,” says Reyes, a 40-year-old father of three who lives in south suburban Blue Island.

“I only kept fighting because my wife said no, that we had to keep trying,” he says.

Mortgage delinquency rates are falling nationwide, according to recent data.

Yet the length of time it takes for foreclosures to clear the market is growing, with the Chicago area posting among the longest foreclosure processes in the country — nearly 2 1/2 years.

The Chicago metro area saw foreclosures decline by more than 25 percent in 2014, compared with 2013.

At the same time, the average foreclosure process — from initial filing through auction of a home — continued to rise to an average of 903 days.

The increasing duration is due in part to the large backlog of foreclosure cases still making their way through Illinois courts.

However, housing advocates say the elongated timeline is contributing to the stagnant problem of abandoned and “zombie” properties continuing to distress housing markets in many areas of the region and city.

“We’re seeing approximately a two-year process, longer, if a homeowner is contesting it,” says Robin Coffey, assistant deputy director at Neighborhood Housing Services of Chicago, a nonprofit community redevelopment group that daily confronts the issue both as a housing lender and an agency providing foreclosure help to homeowners in trouble.

Among states where mortgage delinquency rates are significantly higher, Illinois was hit hard by the mortgage crisis, leading the Illinois Supreme Court in 2012 to put rules in place slowing the movement of foreclosures through the system, Coffey notes.

“There were an awful lot of properties that were in default between 2009 and 2012 — before the court ruled on what lenders had to provide in a foreclosure filing, including original documents — that are still showing in the court process but lenders are not really pursuing anything,” says Coffey, who oversees lending at her agency.

“The biggest issue with this long foreclosure timeframe is these zombie properties sitting abandoned and in distressed conditions, making it difficult for any type of recovery in the low- to moderate-income neighborhoods we operate in,” she says.

The agency last year helped Reyes and his wife emerge from a nearly three-year odyssey into and through the foreclosure process with the home they bought in December 2001.

The journey began with the death of Reyes’ mother in 2010.

Then working as a factory machine operator, Reyes, as his mother’s main source of support, had to find funds for a funeral and related expenses. The financial outlays set him back to the point where he had to file for bankruptcy that year.

A year later, his mortgage ballooned, going from $1,100 to $1,400 a month. At the same time, work at his factory slowed and his 40 hours a week began to shrink. His reduced salary, and that of his wife, a teacher’s aide, wasn’t enough to meet higher mortgage payments.

“We ran through our savings. I called the bank and explained my situation and asked if we could work something out. They said the only way they could actually help me was if I was behind on payments,” Reyes says. “They told me, ‘Fall behind four or five payments and call us back and we’ll talk about it.’ So I stopped paying November 2011.”

In early 2012, he applied for a mortgage modification. The bank told him to restart his payments during the process, to avoid going into foreclosure, he says. So he did.

“I submitted every single document they asked for, and they denied me,” he says.

“They told me to reapply. I did, a second and third time, and was denied. It was after the third time that they finally told me it was because of the bankruptcy,” he says.

Soon after, the bank stopped accepting his payments, filing for foreclosure in December 2012. The court appearances began.

“Then at one hearing, the judge asked, ‘Is it your intention to keep the house?’ I told him, ‘Yes, it’s my house. It’s the only one I have.’ The judge said, ‘OK. As long as you’re working on a loan modification, the foreclosure will not proceed.’”

Reyes sought help through the Regional Fair Housing Center in Evergreen Park. It helped him apply again in summer 2013, but again, his modification request was rejected.

Reyes hired an attorney who charged him $2,500. After paying $1,500 up front, he received a message from the attorney to contact an individual at the bank and never heard from the attorney again. Applying a fifth time by himself, he was again rejected.

Reyes hired a second attorney in fall 2013. This one charged him $1,500 and reapplied for him. Rejected, the attorney reapplied, now a seventh time. This time it brought the news that his mortgage had been sold, and the attorney said he could nothing further.

By spring 2014, Reyes had been in foreclosure for 2 1/2 years. He had not had to make mortgage payments, but he was out a lot of money fighting to hold onto his home.

Then in June 2014, he was laid off from his factory job. He was ready to give up.

“That’s when I came across Neighborhood Housing Services. I had no hope they could help me,” says Reyes, who now runs his own business, doing home remodeling. “The counselor talked with the new lender and we reapplied. In July, they told me I’d been accepted for a trial modification. I was stunned. I was like, ‘Oh my gosh. Are you serious?’ ”

Reyes made his first payment out of foreclosure in September.

Spurred by low interest, dropping unemployment rates and clearance of backlogged foreclosures, experts see mortgage delinquency rates likely to continue their nationwide decline. And some point to cases like Reyes’ in arguing the long process isn’t all bad.

“Buildings that sit abandoned during that process aren’t good for neighborhoods or blocks, but it’s important to tell both sides of the story,” says Andrew Celis, who oversees home ownership and foreclosure prevention at Neighborhood Housing Services. “Where you have a family residing in the property who has experienced death, divorce, health crisis, unemployment — reasons folks historically fall into foreclosure — the elongated judicial timeline allows essential time to seek solutions.”

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