Foreclosure protections would expand for service members, their widowed spouses and certain disabled veterans under an amendment that overwhelmingly passed the House last week.
For U.S. Rep. Elijah E. Cummings of Baltimore, it was a sweet victory. He offered the amendment with two co-sponsors and has made foreclosure prevention a key focus in recent years, pressing for investigations of mortgage servicer abuses, holding massive foreclosure-prevention workshops and putting together a document trail that calls into question claims that principal reduction would be a financially bad move.
He was heartened that his proposed amendment to the Servicemembers Civil Relief Act passed 394 to 27 in the sharply divided House, and the Democrat said Tuesday that he expects the Senate to follow suit with a similar proposal.
"We should not have to have our men and women fighting a war and at the same time fighting to keep their home," said Cummings, who is planning a press conference in Baltimore Thursday to talk about the potential changes.
The Servicemembers Civil Relief Act stays foreclosure for soldiers while they're deployed and for nine months afterward. The legislation would increase that time to a year and expand the group of protected people.
Service members involved in a "contingency operation," widows and widowers of service members who died while serving and veterans declared 100 percent disabled at discharge as a result of injuries from their service would be added to the list of those covered under the act.
The amendment would also double the penalty for mortgage violations under the act to $110,000 for first-time offenses and to $220,000 for later ones, a move prompted by revelations that deployed soldiers had been foreclosed on and hit with inflated fees.
Cummings can relate to struggling homeowners in a way many in Congress cannot. He faced foreclosure himself in 1997, managing to get himself current on the mortgage before it was too late. But he says this personal experience isn't the reason he's made foreclosure prevention a central issue.
"The thing that has pushed me harder and influenced me more in this regard is the pain of the people I represent," he said. "Nine times out of 10, their biggest investment is their house. That's it. And then when they lose their house -- like a man said to me the other day, he said, 'Mr. Cummings, when I lost my house, I lost my dignity.' And this doesn't just affect adults, it affects children -- it destabilizes them tremendously."
He lives in Druid Heights, a West Baltimore neighborhood, and said he can see the effect of the foreclosure crisis every day.
"I would venture to guess there are 30 houses in my block and at least six or seven of them have been foreclosed upon in the last couple of years," he said. Before, he said, "it was a very stable block. I don't remember any foreclosures. It's really in the last two to three years. ... This is happening, by the way, all over the city, and Baltimore’s not as bad as some areas. You go to Detroit, you go to Cleveland, and it's worse."
His seventh foreclosure-prevention conference is scheduled for June 16 at Woodlawn High School. Homeowners bring their records, sit down with their mortgage servicers and often get modifications approved on the spot, Cummings said. The events draw hundreds of people.
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