Banks lend a hand to homeowners pinched by hard economic times

Richard Walter says he was nervous when he got his first notices saying he was delinquent on mortgage payments. But, unlike many in the same position, he contacted his lender and they began to talk.

The result: Mr. Walter, a resident of Westmoreland County, Pa., who was laid off last year after 18 years at US Steel Corporation, now pays $250 instead of $ 484 each month on his mortgage. Though his unemployment checks are often late and may run out soon, he says the bank continues to help him work out a way to keep his home.

Walter is benefiting from his bank's ''forbearance,'' its willingness to make temporary arrangements to allow him to keep the house he and his family of six have lived in for eight years. It's an arrangement more banks are considering as foreclosures and delinquencies hit a post-World War II high.

Nationally, 175,000 to 200,000 home mortgages were foreclosed last year. By comparison, 233,000 mortgages were foreclosed at the height of the Great Depression. The number of mortgages delinquent 90 days or more during 1982 was 277,000.

Homeowners who hold Federal Housing Administration mortgages can apply to the FHA for a partial payment plan until they get back on their feet financially. However, others - many of whom lack adequate mortgage insurance - must rely on their bank's willingness and ability to work out alternatives to foreclosure.

The situation is most serious in areas experiencing severe unemployment, such as Pittsburgh, Pa., which is reeling from steel mill layoffs. Jonathan Zimmer, executive director of United Way's ACTION-Housing Inc. in Pittsburgh, estimates there are 15,000 families seriously delinquent on home payments. Two thousand are in the foreclosure process. In addition, Mr. Zimmer notes, ACTION-Housing's study indicates 22,500 families close to delinquency in the greater Pittsburgh area.

Pennsylvania Gov. Richard L. Thornburgh (R) is calling for a direct-aid program that would earmark $300 million from the state lottery as loans for those facing foreclosure. Another proposal is to increase the state's property transfer tax and channel proceeds to the same group.

ACTION-Housing has developed its own program to help unemployed workers hang on to their homes. At the urging of the Mon (Monongahela) Valley Unemployment Committee, the group developed a specific aid program. One of the most important aspects of the plan, Zimmer says, is to encourage owners to talk to their banks when their finances become strained.

''Many are afraid to confront their lender,'' says Zimmer. ''They were afraid the bank would proceed with foreclosure as soon as they heard about the problem.''

The group also offers free financial and legal counseling through attorneys willing to offer their time. It works as well to increase awareness of the FHA partial payment plan. According to Zimmer, the acceptance rate for such applications in the Pittsburgh area has jumped from 21 to 47 percent. ACTION-Housing is also trying to build up a foreclosure prevention fund, for which it has already collected $140,000 of its $200,000 goal.

The growing frequency of foreclosure is spurring a flurry of proposed bills both on the national and state level. The US House and Senate are each working on bills that would offer either government or private assistance to homeowners facing foreclosure.

At the state level, the Ohio Legislature is considering two bills that would temporarily postpone the sale of homes as well as agricultural property during an economic emergency, a period that would be declared with passage of the bill and continue through 1984. The measure is still in committee.

California is drawing up legislation to put a moratorium on foreclosures for 180 days, should foreclosures rise above a predetermined level in a given county. Legislators say they are also thinking of requiring adequate insurance in the future to protect against unemployment-related delinquency or foreclosure.

According to the Mortgage Bankers Association, there are ''unprecedented'' numbers of loans in the forbearance status.

Says Zimmer, ''Homeowners and lenders have both been hard hit by this problem of severe unemployment. You've missed the point if you try to confront and attack lending institutions, or the unemployed homeowners. You need a balanced approach.''

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