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Irvington Squares off Against Wells Fargo in Fight Over Foreclosures

One resident's struggle for mortgage modification ends in frustration, anger

Paulette McQueen at Wayne Smith's rally, with Mary Szacik of NJ Communities United.
Paulette McQueen at Wayne Smith's rally, with Mary Szacik of NJ Communities United.

Irvington resident Paulette McQueen knew she had a problem in October 2010, but she thought she could overcome it.

Handling legal affairs for her elderly and ailing mother, Lavinia Curry, she missed a monthly mortgage payment to Wells Fargo & Co. on their Garwood Place home. Money was tight, because McQueen had gone on disability and only her sister was bringing home a paycheck.

But they scraped together enough funds to go to a Wells Fargo branch on Springfield Avenue ready to pay for two months.

“We had the money and tried to pay, but they wouldn’t accept it,” McQueen said. “They told me it was against the law.”

Buying a house had been her mother’s lifelong dream, realized only in 2003. Within five years, though, the Great Recession sent housing values plummeting, leaving the family “underwater,” with mortgage debt far higher than the home is worth.

“I’ve done everything I’m supposed to do,” McQueen said, working through the bank and federal programs, trying to obtain some relief. But the process has been confusing and exasperating, with Wells Fargo undermining her along the way, she said.

A Wells Fargo official did not dispute McQueen’s account, but said the situation is not as dire as it may initially appear. “There is not a foreclosure sale currently scheduled,” and Wells Fargo has attempted work with the homeowner, Kevin Friedlander, the bank’s northeast communications manager said via e-mail.

“We have attempted to review Ms. Curry for retention options on multiple occasions, but were unable to obtain all the documents needed to complete a review,” he said.

According to McQueen, though, her mother suffers from Alzheimer’s disease. McQueen obtained power or attorney for her, but even as she attempted to use that to obtain a mortgage modification, bank representatives have continued to contact her mother.

“They’re harassing her all the time, calling her when I’m not there, and of course, she doesn’t understand what they’re saying,” McQueen said. “She’ll say yes to anything.”

Such stories are commonplace in Irvington, a blue-collar town of 53,000 neighboring Newark, as foreclosures reshape the community. From 2008 through 2012, lenders foreclosed on roughly 1,775 local homes, according to Mayor Wayne Smith. That represents 8.8 percent of the township’s households.

After the former residents leave, many of those properties sit vacant, creating crime, fire, and health hazards, according to local officials. This summer, New Jersey Communities United reported Irvington has spent $14 million responding to problems connected with vacant homes.

In those desperate circumstances, Smith and city council members announced on November 16 that they will entertain the unusual step of using the township’s power of eminent domain to acquire vacant houses or occupied ones with underwater mortgages.

Eminent domain allows governments to acquire property, even from unwilling sellers, for a “public purpose.” To Irvington officials, that means helping residents keep their homes and reducing the blight caused by abandoned units. The idea would be to offer them better deals, with reduced principal or lower interest.

Such a step would pit the township against financial institutions and investment groups that now hold title to an increasingly large share of local real estate. Wells Fargo and other big banks and investors already have gone to court to try to block the only city to propose similar action, Richmond, CA.

But the banks, especially Wells Fargo, find little sympathy in Irvington.

“There are institutions that have found a way to literally steal our homes,” said Councilwoman Andrea McArdle.

Not only did lenders steer residents into mortgages with bad terms, they have been reluctant to work with them since property values plunged, she said.

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