UPPER MARLBORO -- The mortgage crisis roiling communities across the country is being acutely felt in Prince George's County, where thousands of residents -- many lured in recent years by relatively affordable real estate prices -- are in danger of losing their homes.
Middle-class homebuyers flocked to the county in the early part of this decade as prices in other Washington-area suburbs surged. Now, scores of families face the threat of foreclosure, throwing one of the nation's wealthiest majority-black suburbs into what state and local officials who gathered here yesterday called an emergency.
Prince George's had twice as many home foreclosures in the first nine months of 2007 as any other Maryland locality, according to data compiled by the firm RealtyTrac Inc. and released yesterday by state officials. The firm reported that Baltimore City, Baltimore County and Montgomery County, which had the next-highest numbers of foreclosures, each had half as many as Prince George's.
Officials are alarmed by the trend -- the number of foreclosures is expected to increase drastically in coming months, as many adjustable-rate mortgage rates jump.
"Prince George's County is ground zero in Maryland's foreclosure challenge," said Thomas Perez, secretary of the state Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation and co-chairman of the governor's foreclosure task force. "There are a disproportionate number of residents in Prince George's County who have subprime loans. Regrettably, there is a racial correlation."
At Henry Wise Jr. High School, several dozen people -- including legislators, state officials and County Council members -- discussed ways to head off the crisis. Participants proposed holding night community meetings to reach out to distressed homeowners, providing counseling and creating a county fund that would allow subprime homeowners to qualify for state aid programs.
Mortgage problems nationwide stem from factors such as people buying homes they could not afford, being deceived by unscrupulous lenders and taking out exotic loans whose interest rates have skyrocketed.
Prince George's, which sits northeast of Washington and is the state's second-largest jurisdiction with 840,000 residents, has long been a destination for African-Americans, who make up two-thirds of the population. In recent years, the county has also seen an influx of immigrants. The county's median household income -- $65,850, according to a 2006 survey -- exceeds the national average.
State officials cited data yesterday from RealtyTrac Inc., a California-based provider of foreclosure information that concedes that its numbers might be imprecise because of the difficulty in collecting foreclosure data in Maryland. But no one denies that Prince George's County has been particularly hard hit. Through the first nine months of 2007, there were more than 3,300 foreclosures, the firm says.
Stephen Fuller, an economist at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va., attributes the crisis in Prince George's to several factors, including the general affordability of the county's housing stock.
"You think of that as a strength, but it also attracted buyers who were marginally financially capable of supporting the mortgage," Fuller said.
Many people who bought homes in the county during the boom were first-time homebuyers and young families with children -- and many were so-called subprime borrowers, those with weaker-than-average credit scores. As a result, they took on adjustable-rate mortgages whose interest rates have increased beyond what they can afford.
Compounding the problem was a construction boom in the county where, unlike other areas in the Washington region, vast tracts of land had remained largely undeveloped, Fuller said.
"They just couldn't stop it," Fuller said of construction there.
Because of the sheer number of homes sold in the county this decade, the high number of foreclosures is not surprising, Fuller said.
One homeowner in danger of losing his home is Samuel Moore, a 37-year-old youth development specialist for a D.C. nonprofit.
Moore was a D.C. renter when he started looking for a home in 2006. A real estate agent suggested a four-bedroom house in the Prince George's town of Clinton, and he paid $283,000 for the house that November.
Within weeks, he said, the ceiling in the dining room caved in, pipes burst and the toilet in the main bathroom crumbled. After spending his entire savings on repairs, Moore said, he could no longer afford the house. "It turned into a money pit," he said.
He put the home on the market early last year, and so far, four potential buyers have expressed interest to his real estate agent. But he said none qualified for a mortgage.
Moore said he has not been able to find a renter and will not be able to make this month's payment.
"I thought I had enough foresight" to avoid buying a house with so many problems, he said. "I wind up exhausting all of my savings."
Caprise Coppedge, a housing counselor for United Communities Against Poverty in Capitol Heights, said an average of 10 homeowners daily seek her counseling, though she has time for only one. She said she was counseling one homeowner a week in 2006.
She said the common theme among her clients is "lack of financial literacy."
"They don't quite understand the lending process, and they're not understanding what type of mortgage they're getting," she said.
Gov. Martin O'Malley announced an initiative last summer aimed at preventing home foreclosures through credit counseling, enforcement of lending practice standards and refinancing assistance to stop what he said is a rising threat to the state's middle class.
Officials said yesterday that they must do all they can to help homeowners now because in March, a wave of homeowners will be hit with adjusted rates.
"I wish I could tell you the problem has bottomed out and things are going to get better," Perez said.