Mortgage Crisis

They seemed like a godsend. As home prices went up and up during one of the greatest housing booms in American history, along came new-fangled mortgages that helped homeowners afford what they otherwise couldn’t.

One problem: Now the bill’s coming due. Because many of those loans are resetting after a year or two of low teaser rates, monthly payments are spiking and foreclosures are starting to run rampant. And African Americans, more than other groups, have been saddled with exotic mortgages that put their homes at risk.

Take Delores King, a 70-year-old Chicago retiree living off a monthly pension of $950. In February 2005, she secured a home loan that cost her $832 a month; by August it had shot up to $1,488. “I’ve taken out loans before, but this was the worst I’ve ever encountered,” says King, who says her lender didn’t fully explain the terms of the loan and how quickly her payments would skyrocket. In danger of losing her home, she’s now relying on family and friends to help out. “I don’t want this to happen to others.”

Of course, adjustable-rate mortgages are common, and many are totally aboveboard. But others, like King’s, have short introductory rates and whopping fees that have experts crying foul. “These subprime loans were push-marketed to African Americans,” says Keith Corbett, executive vice president of the Center for Responsible Lending, a Durham, North Carolina-based nonprofit that researches lending practices. “Now homeowners find themselves unable to make their payments, and almost one in five of these loans is being foreclosed on.”

Not only Main Street, but Wall Street as well is bracing for the fallout. Financial giant HSBC Holdings recently announced that it was setting aside more than $10 billion to cover the rising rush of delinquencies. And there were 1.2 million filings for foreclosures in 2006, up 42% over 2005, according to research firm RealtyTrac.
There are several payment-option mortgages to be wary of, Corbett warns. A common one is the 2-28 ARM, a type of adjustable-rate mortgage. It offers an enticing rate for the first couple of years but then resets to higher, prevailing rates after that (the precise terms depend on the individual loan). Another is an “interest-only” mortgage in which you pay off just the loan’s interest every month but none of the principal. Then there’s the “negative amortization” loan, in which you don’t even pay off the monthly interest, so the principal actually grows month after month.

Ironically, these exotic mortgage products often aren’t needed in the first place. Corbett says that had homeowners opted for plain old fixed-rate mortgages instead, they would have paid only an average of .5% more on their interest rate. But minorities seem to have been steered into such loans. According to the Consumer Federation of America, African Americans are 30% more likely to have signed up for these payment-option mortgages.
If you find yourself in a highly risky mortgage, or are concerned about falling behind in your payments, all is not lost. Contact community-based organizations that provide loan