While the nation's attention fixes on the two major parties' presidential nominating conventions, an increasing number of people in Howard County are facing foreclosure - a situation driving much of the economic downturn that candidates are pledging to solve.
At Wilde Lake Interfaith Center in Columbia, a civic action group called People Acting Together in Howard (PATH) staged a foreclosure options workshop that illustrated some of the problems.
The courts approved 411 home foreclosures in Howard in 2006, compared with 674 in 2007 and 425 through July of this year, said Circuit Court Clerk Margaret Rappaport. It is unclear whether all of those approved actually took place, but obviously, the problem is growing, even in prosperous Howard County.
Yet the Aug. 23 PATH event, which featured 15 attorneys volunteering their time for individual consultations, state housing officials and loads of pamphlets offering help, drew fewer than 25 people facing the possibility of losing their homes.
"I wondered how many people would not show up," said Cammy Rodriquez, a volunteer whose husband, Hector, is PATH's lead organizer. "It's such a private thing, an embarrassing thing."
Hector Rodriquez said he was pleased that about 20 people who needed help came and the lawyers stayed late to work with each one.
"Part of the problem is that people aren't coming to us," said the Rev. Carletta Allen of Locust United Methodist Church, who also was there to offer help. "In Columbia, people are very hesitant. They think it's just them. There's an undercurrent of shame about this."
One Columbia resident who declined to give his name said he came to find a way out of the financial hole his family of four is in. His household income is $90,000 a year, he said, but after buying a $172,000 townhouse in 2003, he refinanced it for $300,000 to use the equity to pay off mounting bills. Now, his new adjustable-rate mortgage payment is a little more than $2,000 a month and the family can't afford it. One problem leads to others, he said, and the debts are mounting.
Dianna Woodlon, a 52-year old widow, said she grew up in Clarksville and attends Allen's church but is facing the loss of the modest home in Pikesville where she has lived for 16 years. She has undertaken a refinance she thought would pay off her car loan and leave her with money to spare.
"I didn't read the dotted line," she said, adding that she trusted the salesman because his parents are her neighbors.
She refinanced her fixed-rate mortgage on the $70,000 house she and her late husband had bought in 1992 for a $200,000 adjustable-rate mortgage, but she said the agent failed to tell her that real estate taxes and homeowners insurance would not be deducted and paid from escrow. Now she owes $4,000 in back county taxes, her monthly payment rose from $780 a month to $1,498, and she has fallen behind on other bills, ruining her credit.
Anne Balcer Norton, director of foreclosure prevention for the St. Ambrose Housing Aid Center, attended the event and said most subprime mortgage refinances did not include escrow for taxes and insurance. That was often advertised as a refinance "savings," she said. Woodlon admits she was gullible.
"I'm not feeling sorry for myself," she said. "I've always been a go-getter and a fighter."
But she's in over her head and looking for a way out. Her grown children live with her and pay the monthly utility bills, but they don't pay rent.
"They have school loans," she said.
Voter crunch expected
Voting in the residential election may be exciting, but waiting in long lines to vote isn't, which is why state and county election officials are making a few changes in polling place operations.
Maryland election officials expect very high voter turnout - perhaps up to 85 percent in Howard County - which could mean long waits for busy people.
To help counter that, Guy Mickley, president of the Maryland Association of Election Officials and deputy administrator of Howard County's election board, offers a few ways to help ease the wait.
The board is recruiting extra election judges who will be assigned to the heaviest voting precincts, Mickley said. Some can hand out specimen ballots to people waiting in line to help them determine what choices they will make while inside the booths. That could speed decisions, and the specimen ballots can be reused throughout the day, Mickley said.
In addition, the county hopes to lease extra electronic voting machines and supply extra chairs for voters while they wait.
In addition, the board wants to advertise the idea of voting in the traditional slower periods during the day, between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. to avoid the before- and after-work rush hours.
"Maryland voters are excited about this election and so are we," Mickley said. "Marylanders should feel proud that so many of their friends and neighbors plan to vote."