Thousands of veterans face foreclosure and it's not their fault. The VA could help
Updated November 16, 2023 at 9:53 AM ET
Becky Queen remembers opening the letter with the foreclosure notice.
"My heart dropped," she said, "and my hands were shaking."
Queen lives on a small farm in rural Oklahoma with her husband, Ray, and their two young kids. Ray is a U.S. Army veteran who was wounded in Iraq. Since the 1940s, the federal government has helped veterans like him buy homes through its VA loan program, run by the Department of Veterans Affairs.
But now the VA has put this family on the brink of losing their house.
"I didn't do anything wrong," says Ray Queen. "The only thing I did was trust a company that I'm supposed to trust with my mortgage."
Like millions of other Americans, the Queens took advantage of what's called a COVID mortgage forbearance, which allowed homeowners to skip mortgage payments. It was set up by Congress after the pandemic hit for people who lost income.
But an NPR investigation has found that thousands of veterans who took a forbearance are now at risk of losing their homes through no fault of their own. And while the VA is working on a way to fix the problem, for many it could be too late.
After NPR initially published this story, a group of four U.S. Senators sent a letter to the VA asking it to immediately stop foreclosing on the homes of veterans and servicemembers. It's unclear if the VA will do that.
For the Queens, this all started in September of 2021, when Becky's mother died of COVID-19. She had to take an extended leave from work and lost her job.
So last year, with their savings dwindling, the couple says they called the company that manages their mortgage, Mr. Cooper, and were told they could skip six months of payments. And once they got back on their feet and could start paying again, the couple says they were told, they wouldn't owe the missed payments in a big lump sum.
"I very specifically asked 'how does this work?'" says Becky Queen. "They said we're taking all of your payments, we're bundling them, and we're putting them at the end."
That is, the missed payments would be moved to the back end of their loan term so they could just start making their normal mortgage payment again.
But that's not how it worked out.
In October 2022, the Department of Veterans Affairs ended the so-called Partial Claim Payment program, or PCP, that enabled homeowners to do that. This happened even though the mortgage industry, housing advocates and veterans groups all warned the VA not to end the program, saying thousands of homeowners needed to catch up on missed payments. Interest rates had risen so much that many couldn't afford to refinance or get back on track any other way.
Ray Queen says nobody told him about any of this.
"How does that happen?" Queen asked. "This is supposed to be a program that you all have to help people in times of crisis, so you don't take their house from them."
The Queens say they tried to come off their forbearance in February of this year and resume paying their mortgage. They were both working again. But they ran into delays with the mortgage company.
Then, in September, the couple says they were told they needed to come up with more than $22,000, which they don't have, or either sell their house or get foreclosed on.
Their mortgage servicing company, Mr. Cooper, said in a statement it "explored every possible avenue to work through a solution for this customer." But it said the VA needs better loss-mitigation options and referred NPR to a letter from advocates, industry and veteran groups urging the VA to restart the PCP program.
The VA "has really let people down"
"The Department of Veterans Affairs has really let people down," says Kristi Kelly, a consumer lawyer in Virginia who says she is hearing from a lot of other veterans in the same situation as Ray and Becky Queen.
"The homeowners entered into COVID forbearances, they were made certain promises, and there were certain representations that were made," says Kelly. "And the VA essentially pulled the rug out from under everybody."
For some homeowners, ending the program may not mean foreclosure, but it still means a financial hardship.
"Many of these people have 2 or 3% interest rate loans," Kelly says. With the PCP program they could keep that interest rate. But now, she says, the only way they'll be able to save their home is to enter into a loan modification where the interest rate will be around today's market rate of 7.5%.
"For most people, their payments will increase by $600 or $700 a month, because the VA has decided to end the partial claim program."
Many homeowners can't afford such a huge increase in their monthly payment.
According to the data firm ICE Mortgage Technology, 6,000 homeowners with VA loans who had COVID forbearances are currently in the foreclosure process. And 34,000 more are delinquent.
Kelly says most other homeowners in America — people with FHA loans, for instance, or loans backed by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac — still have ways to avoid foreclosure by moving missed payments to the back of the loan term.
But homeowners with VA loans don't, because the VA ended that program. So veterans are being treated worse than most other homeowners, Kelly said.
"Service members are in a position where they're going to lose their home," she says. "And for most people, that's everything they work for — and all their wealth is in their homes."
VA has a plan to help, but it could be too late
The Department of Veterans Affairs says it had no choice but to end the program.
"We had a short-term authority for that specific program during COVID," says John Bell, executive director of the Veterans Benefits Administration's Loan Guaranty Service. "It wasn't part of our normal authority."
Some in the industry think the VA did, in fact, have the authority to extend the program. But either way, it ended it.
Now, though, the VA is taking the situation seriously.
NPR has learned that the VA is working on a new program to replace the old one. It will work in a different way but to similar effect, to save people from foreclosure. Bell says it's going to take four to five months to get it up and running.
That's too long for many of those 6,000 VA homeowners already in the foreclosure process. Not to mention the many more who are delinquent.
Already, data shows that more VA homeowners have been heading into foreclosure since the VA ended its PCP program. The same is not true for FHA loans or loans backed by Fannie Mae or Freddie Mac.
Will the firetruck arrive too late?
With so many homeowners at risk, there's growing pressure on the VA to stop foreclosing on veterans until it gets its fix up and running.
"There should be a pause on foreclosures," says Steve Sharpe, a senior attorney at the National Consumer Law Center. "Veterans should really be able to have an ability to access this program when it comes online because it's been so long since they've had something that will truly work.
Sharpe says the VA could also restart the PCP program that it shut down. "They have the authority to do both," he says.
Pausing foreclosures sounds like a good idea to veteran Ray Queen in Oklahoma.
"Let us keep paying towards our regular mortgage between now and then," he says. "Then once the VA has that fixed we can come back and address the situation. That seems like the adult, mature thing to do, not put a family through hell."
NPR repeated Ray Queen's plea to John Bell at the VA directly. Bell said the VA is "exploring all options at this point in time."
"We owe it to our veterans to make sure that we're giving them every opportunity to be able to stay in the home," Bell said.
Wednesday, a group of U.S. Senators sent a letter to the VA urging them to put a hold on any more foreclosures.
"Without this pause, thousands of veterans and servicemembers could needlessly lose their homes," Sens. Sherrod Brown, Jon Tester, Jack Reed, and Tim Kaine, all Democrats, wrote in a letter to VA Secretary Denis McDonough. "This was never the intent of Congress."
Tester, of Montana, chairs the Veterans' Affairs Committee, and Brown, of Ohio, chairs the Banking Committee. They asked the VA "to implement an immediate pause on all VA loan foreclosures where borrowers are likely to be eligible for VA's new...program until it is available and borrowers can be evaluated to see if they qualify."
Ray and Becky Queen are hoping the VA does let people keep their homes until the new program can offer them a way to get current on their mortgages. Because if the firetruck shows up after the house has burned down, it's not going to do much good for the thousands of veterans and service members who need help now.
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