Mortgage servicers have started the countdown to foreclosure on more than 18,000 Maryland homes so far this month, a big uptick that is worrying state officials and could signal an end to about a year of delays related to robo-signing.
The increase is in the number of notices sent to borrowers saying that their servicers intend to file a foreclosure case against them — a warning that must come at least 45 days ahead of any action. Fewer than 11,000 notices were filed in all of November 2010, according to state records. The figure for the first half of this month is already 70 percent larger.
"That doesn't mean all will result in foreclosure, but that's clearly an alarming number," said Anne Balcer Norton, the state's deputy commissioner of financial regulation.
The robo-signing scandal that engulfed the mortgage industry — court documents were signed en masse by employees who admitted they had no idea if the information was accurate — put foreclosure actions on ice nationwide last fall. Slowdowns have continued for months.
In Baltimore, the number of new foreclosure proceedings between January and September was down more than 60 percent from the same period last year, according to court records tracked by the Baltimore Neighborhood Indicators Alliance.
But Maryland regulators say they also heard from some attorneys representing mortgage servicers that they were holding off on filing impending-foreclosure warning notices while state officials were tweaking foreclosure-mediation rules this summer. New regulations went into effect in late October.
Separately on Thursday, an industry trade group said the number of Maryland homes in the foreclosure process — both new cases and older ones languishing in the courts — rose 16 percent during the summer compared with a year earlier. That was the first increase since the spring of 2010, according to the Mortgage Bankers Association.
The trade group's figures indicate that the summer increase wasn't driven up by new cases, which actually dropped. Instead, properties remained in foreclosure longer before the owners either negotiated an alternative or lost their homes at auction.
The number of Maryland homes whose owners are behind on their mortgages but not yet in foreclosure continues to recede at a modest pace, dropping 6 percent from a year ago. But the number is still formidable — more than 100,000 homes handled by mortgage servicers that participate in the trade group's survey, which includes most but not all of the industry.
The Mortgage Bankers Association expects that the nation as a whole won't get back to more normal levels of serious delinquencies and foreclosures for a while.
"It's a three- or four-year process, assuming we have the jobs and economic growth we're anticipating," said Michael Fratantoni, the group's vice president of research and economics.
The foreclosure crisis started with subprime loans that quickly soured in 2007, with problems spreading into all mortgage products as the economy worsened. The Center for Responsible Lending, which warned of the subprime meltdown before it hit, said in a report Thursday that it believed the country was "not even halfway through the foreclosure crisis."
One way Maryland has tried to ease the impact is with foreclosure mediation. Since July 2010, homeowners have been able to request a court-supervised mediation session with their mortgage servicer in a last-ditch effort to avoid the auction block.
Few borrowers have opted in — only about 1,700 since the law took effect. But state housing officials say 40 percent of mediation cases have resulted in the homeowners avoiding foreclosure, either with new payment plans that allow them to keep their homes or strategies such as short sale that don't.
Vicki King Taitano, director of Maryland Legal Aid's Foreclosure Legal Assistance Project, which helps the lowest-income borrowers, said her clients frequently don't have the means to stay in their homes because of job loss or other financial shocks. Even so, mediation has helped, she said.
It's allowed for creative solutions, such as mortgage servicers agreeing to modify loans because homeowners brought in renters to increase their income. And it's given some borrowers their first useful conversation with servicers after getting nowhere by telephone, Taitano said.
"It's a big change, and it's a really good change," she said.
A new state task force on foreclosure is meeting now to see what, if any, changes should be suggested in the way Maryland is addressing the crisis. Part of that discussion is about ripple effects on neighborhoods struggling with empty homes, a problem that could quickly worsen if the foreclosure-warning notices in November are the start of a trend.
"If the foreclosure pipeline explodes, the next area of focus has to be on neighborhoods and communities that may be affected," said Carol Gilbert, Maryland's assistant secretary for neighborhood revitalization. "I think there's a neighborhood dimension to this that we're all concerned about."