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Troubled US Homeowners Face Emotional, Financial Stress in Market Downturn


As the U.S. housing market continues a decline, home foreclosures across America have reached a three-decade high. For many Americans, the crisis is causing emotional as well as financial strain. VOA's Brian Wagner reports on how the mortgage crisis is affecting residents in the Miami area.

As home prices soared in recent years, many in the Miami area used cheap so-called sub-prime mortgages to buy investment properties they could rent out to generate additional income. But when the housing bubble burst, many were left with mortgages with ballooning interest rates and properties with plunging values. Many have not been able to make the monthly mortgage payments and are faced with the loss of their homes, or foreclosure.

Real estate experts say home prices across the U.S. are expected to continue falling, and credit has dried up, making it difficult for many homeowners to sell off troubled properties.

In Miami, the excitement of investing in real estate faded quickly for Sonya, who did not give her last name, because she is embarrassed by her financial troubles.

The Jamaican immigrant says she invested $40,000 in two homes in West Palm Beach when the real estate market was expanding. The properties were supposed to help pay for her upcoming retirement. But she ran into problems when the units failed to attract renters or buyers as the market turned sour.

After taking a $25,000 loan against her own home to make mortgage payments on the investment properties, she was still unable to prevent the bank from foreclosing on them.

"Now I am facing foreclosure on the house I am living in," she said. "So on top of taking those two [rental properties], I am trying to see how I can keep the house that is over my head for over 14 years."

Sonya was one of scores of worried homeowners seeking advice at a recent clinic on foreclosure prevention at Miami-Dade College. She took some comfort in knowing she is not alone.

"Nobody has control over their job situation or the markets," she added. "So when things like that happen, we just have to know what is the next step."

In Miami, foreclosure clinics and classes are multiplying as the crisis continues.

The Miami-Dade clinic provided a chance for homeowners to meet with bank representatives and aid groups.

The non-profit Neighborhood Housing Services was one of the groups at the clinic. It helps delinquent borrowers navigate complex legal and financial procedures to avoid foreclosure.

The group's Jacquie Madera says many large banks are willing to negotiate with borrowers to help them stay in their homes, but she says some smaller banks are slower to respond.

"Instead of doing a loan modification and giving the client a fixed-rate mortgage, they put them on a repayment plan," she explained. "That repayment plan is only for three months, and then what happens again? They are back in the same situation."

Madera says some clients suffer emotionally from the ordeal and from the fear of declaring bankruptcy.

"We try to encourage them, because they have lost everything they had," she added.

Laborer Fernando Montenegro says he has little hope of saving his home and the house he bought for his daughter. The Nicaraguan immigrant says he had to stop making payments on the properties six months ago, because his wife and his daughter lost their jobs and his own income dropped.

He says has talked with the bank, but not to request an easier payment plan.

Montenegro says he asked the bank to repossess the houses, because he does not believe his family can overcome its financial troubles.

When all else fails, the last stop for properties in default is foreclosure court. The number of auctions at the Miami-Dade county court has soared in recent months.

Investor Julian Dominguez has been tracking foreclosures at the courthouse for more than 20 years, and says he has seen it all before. Dominguez says he sympathizes with homeowners facing foreclosure, but says many will land on their feet.

"The news [media] goes to [report] 'oh, they are losing their home.' They are losing the property.' When they go from that to a rental, they still have a home," he noted. "They are not on the street."

Ben Bernanke, the chairman of the Federal Reserve, the country's central bank, has pledged his agency will do everything it can to help American homeowners who have been hurt by the mortgage meltdown.

The Bush administration has reached an agreement with some banks to get them to renegotiate loans with some at risk borrowers. But the administration and congress have so far not agreed on a broader program to alleviate the crisis.

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