A housing crisis seen up close — and from Capitol Hill

Rep. Elijah E. Cummings has been one of the most ardent voices for homeowners throughout the country's foreclosure crisis, particularly in recent days, when revelations of slipshod practices at major lending companies have prompted moratoria and investigations into the process of evicting people from their houses.

For the Baltimore Democrat, foreclosure is not just a political issue, it's also a personal one. In 1997, the year after he entered the House, Cummings fell six months behind on the mortgage on his West Baltimore home, and foreclosure proceedings were launched.

As vocal as he's been on the subject the past couple of years, the 59-year-old lawmaker is reluctant to say much about his own brush with foreclosure. As The Baltimore Sun detailed back then in an article about a range of financial problems troubling him, Cummings paid back the nearly $5,200 he owed the mortgage company, plus several hundred dollars in fines and interest, and kept the house.

"I scraped up every dime," Cummings said, "and today I am debt-free."

Whether out of embarrassment over the financial lapse or wary of appearing to have a personal ax to grind against lenders, Cummings doesn't draw a connection between his own experience and his advocacy for those facing foreclosure. Different time, different circumstances.

And yet it's hard to imagine that he doesn't relate to such homeowners in a deeper way than perhaps most elected officials.

"I grew up very poor," said Cummings, one of seven children of sharecroppers who moved from South Carolina to Baltimore in 1945. "I know how hard people work to have their houses."

A member of the Joint Economic Committee, he's been active in the issue for years — hosting home-retention and foreclosure-prevention workshops in the state, holding up his vote for the financial bailout until getting assurances that other measures would help homeowners facing foreclosure.

He's particularly incensed about the latest revelations, that tens of thousands of foreclosures were being processed sloppily, with lawyers or other employees "robo-signing" documents without verifying what was in them, and companies sometimes not even being able to figure out who owns the mortgage.

"You're being put out of your house and the lawyer hasn't even done due diligence? They just send it to some foreclosure mill?" asked Cummings, an attorney himself. "That's not right. You can't just say, 'To hell with the rules.'"

All this comes at a time when it's hard to have any confidence in the financial industry, given what we now know about its role in the housing bust. During the bubble, lenders rushed to approve loans to seemingly anybody, then they bundled and sold the debt to God knows whom. And since then, millions of people have lost their homes after defaulting on their mortgages.

Now, in what should be no surprise, we learn that in many cases, the paper trail documenting who owns what is a mess.

Cummings is certainly not surprised: In the past couple of years, he said, his office has been deluged with calls from homeowners who have had problems dealing with their mortgage companies.

"People are sending in documents, trying to get a modification," he said. "They say, 'I've sent my documents in two, three times, and the company is losing them.' We'll fax them from our office, and they still can't find them. A lot of times, people can't get somebody on the phone, or they get the run-around."

Cummings is among those who have no patience with the argument that this latest crisis is just a paperwork problem, that the borrowers have been delinquent on their loans and should lose their homes regardless of problems with documentation.

For one thing, there's the matter of how taxpayers bailed out these very banks, he said.

"They feel, 'We bailed out the banks, and now, one, the banks are not staffing up enough to help us take advantage of loan modification options, and, two, then they take their property without proper documentation?'" Cummings said. "I mean, come on."

Since for many Americans, the home is often their largest investment, Cummings said he plans to continue trying to help them hold on to this anchor to the middle class.

"This financial crisis is like a storm. It is a terrible storm, but because of the strength of this country, we will get through this storm," he said. "But who will own your house when the storm ends?"

jean.marbella@baltsun.com

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