Bank Of America Improves Foreclosure Image
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Bank of America will release quarterly earnings tomorrow and once again, foreclosures will be part of the equation. The Charlotte-based bank's role in the 2008 housing crash has landed it on a fair number of lists of most hated institutions in America.
But, as Julie Rose of member station WFAE in Charlotte discovered, some of those most involved in cleaning up the aftermath of the foreclosure crisis are beginning to soften toward the bank.
JULIE ROSE, BYLINE: Non-profit housing counselors are down in the trenches of the battle to keep people in their homes. They hold the hands of desperate homeowners navigating bank bureaucracy and the stories they tell of lost documents and ignored phone calls seem endless.
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ROSE: So when housing counselors gathered at a conference a few weeks back in Charlotte, I frankly expected to hear a lot of criticism aimed at Bank of America.
SHERYL MERRITT: I think they're trying to be proactive. Trying to, you know, make it easier for counselors and agencies to just...
ROSE: Wait a second. Proactive? Making it easier for counselors? That's Sheryl Merritt with Consumer Education Services in Raleigh. And she wasn't the only housing counselor talking like that. I spoke with at least half a dozen at that conference - from around the country - and all gave props to Bank of America.
Still skeptical, I cold-called some more housing counselors around North Carolina to ask which mortgage servicer they think is doing the best job.
STEVE OBENDORF: OK, I think Bank of America probably is. Probably the one that's stepped forward the most.
ROSE: That's Steve Obendorf with Consumer Credit Counseling Services. Same goes for Bruce Hamlett at Community Link in Charlotte. In fact, you know what goes through his mind when a client comes to him for help with a Bank of America mortgage? Relief.
BRUCE HAMLETT: OK. Woo. This one, as long as the client works with us and gives us everything we need from them to put together a full package, I know we can get it submitted and pushed through the pipeline fairly quickly.
ROSE: Hamlett suspects all the bad publicity Bank of America's had these last few years has inspired it to clean up its image faster than the other big servicers. But it's also worth noting that many of the improvements housing counselors praise are actually mandated by a settlement Bank of America and four other big mortgage servicers made with states over botched foreclosure practices. They're required to have a website for submitting documents and guarantee a single point-of-contact for each loan modification.
Housing counselors give Bank of America extra credit for offering them a dedicated hotline and for opening centers where homeowners can go to meet with someone face-to-face about a pending foreclosure.
AUDIE CASHION: The people can come back in anytime they'd like, set up another follow-up appointment.
ROSE: Audie Cashion runs the Bank of America Customer Assistance Center in Charlotte.
CASHION: So back here is where all of our specialists are.
ROSE: It opened last year in a nondescript, two-story office building - one of 50 across the nation. Other big mortgage servicers including Wells Fargo and J.P. Morgan Chase have similar centers.
Mortgage specialist Saleena Whitley started off two years ago helping Bank of America customers over the phone before switching to the Customer Assistance Center.
Tell me why you decided to make that switch.
SALEENA WHITLEY: Actually, because I like being able to speak with a person face-to-face. They can look at you and tell in your reactions and how you're empathizing with their situation and not just have an understanding, oh, I'm just a number over the phone.
ROSE: Housing counselors say that kind of human touch is precisely the thing big banks have lacked during this foreclosure crisis. They also say nightmare experiences still happen. And Bank of America's no angel. It prompts the vast majority of complaints that have come in to the office overseeing the national mortgage settlement.
Community Link's Bruce Hamlett says it's a numbers thing: Bank of America has by far the most troubled mortgages on its books thanks to its 2008 acquisition of Countrywide.
HAMLETT: Bank of America is, you know, is Snow White and the rest of them are the Seven Dwarves when it comes to volume. They probably had the biggest mess to clean up.
ROSE: And the most at stake if they don't.
For NPR News, I'm Julie Rose in Charlotte. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.