Wells Fargo Mistakes Cost People Their Homes; Just the Start of Their Problemsby Deon Roberts, The Charlotte Observer June 24, 2019
BURLINGTON, N.C. — About nine years ago, a Burlington woman begged Wells Fargo to keep working with her to lower her mortgage payments. She had just lost her job, and the single mom was struggling to pay for the house she shared with her three kids.
Ultimately, the bank said no.
Her problems continued to mount. Choking back tears, Zsa Zsa Monique Conyers remembers she briefly thought about suicide, that her children would be better off without her. But she recalled thinking at the time, “I look at them in their face and be like, ‘I can’t do that. I can’t leave them like that.’ ”
Conyers eventually lost her home, as did hundreds of others who made similar requests to Wells Fargo. But it turns out Wells Fargo made a critical mistake when it rejected all of those requests for modifications of their mortgages.
Last year, Wells apologized and admitted it wrongly denied or failed to offer about 870 mortgage modifications between 2010 and April 2018. In approximately 545 cases, customers like Conyers lost their homes to foreclosure.
Conyers is among the people who are now speaking out publicly about what happened to them and how their lives were upended in the aftermath of Wells Fargo’s mistakes.
A common banking practice, mortgage modifications involve lowering monthly payments on loans to make them more affordable and help people avoid foreclosure. For instance, a bank can reduce the payments while extending the life of the mortgage. Banks may make these changes when homeowners struggle to pay back their loans, such as after a job loss.
To be sure, the homeowners bore responsibility too because they failed to make their mortgage payments, often for years at a time. But Wells acknowledged it erred by not granting a potential lifeline with mortgage modifications for people who should have qualified for them.
San Francisco-based Wells said it has set aside $8 million to compensate customers and last year began issuing checks to homeowners. Wells, which has a large presence in Charlotte, blamed its modification mistake on faulty software that it said wrongly disqualified eligible applicants.
But some victims say the compensation doesn’t come close to atoning for the impact the foreclosures had on their lives. According to a class-action suit filed in December in California, a case which Conyers joined, the bank has sent checks ranging from $1,400 to $25,000.
Wells also offered free mediation to customers who believe the payments aren’t sufficient, bank spokesman Tom Goyda said in a statement.
“Prior to the errors, (Wells) had worked with most of these customers — in many cases for years — to delay foreclosure, offer modifications and provide other forms of payment relief,” he said. “We regret that our mistake may have denied some of them another opportunity to remain in their home.”
Conyers, 51, said the bank can’t begin to replace everything she and her children lost when they had to move out of their house and in with her mother.
“I had to get rid of a whole lot of their things that they really loved and treasured, a whole lot of things that I had worked hard in getting,” Conyers said. “We downsized a whole lot.”
‘CRY BEHIND CLOSED DOORS’
To Conyers, the four-bedroom, two-bath house she bought in 2005 was an ideal place to raise her children. “Each one of them had their own room,” she said. “They had land galore to go out there and play.”
But in 2010, Duke Energy closed a Burlington payment center where Conyers worked. Burlington is about two hours northeast of Charlotte.
When Conyers lost her job, it became hard to pay for gas much less the mortgage. “You want to cry behind closed doors, which I did so many nights and so many days,” she said.
She and her children lived in her mother’s two-bedroom home for about a year. She and her daughter slept in one room. Her two sons slept in another, and her mother slept on a pallet on the floor.
Wells had worked with Conyers for more than six years to help her keep her home, including providing one modification, said Goyda, the bank spokesman. Then the bank erroneously rejected another modification request, he said. After Conyers fell three years behind on payments, the bank had to complete a foreclosure, he said.
On average, homeowners affected by the error hadn’t made a mortgage payment in nearly a year and a half, Goyda said, and were already in the foreclosure process when the mistake occurred.
A modification would have made mortgage payments more affordable for the customers. To be sure, though, there’s no guarantee they would have continued making their payments and avoided foreclosure.
Conyers said she suffered from depression and other health problems because of her foreclosure.
“I didn’t want to do pretty much anything,” she said. “My hair started falling out. It’s to the point that you just don’t want to be around no more.”
The foreclosure damaged her credit score so much, it’s tough to find landlords who will rent to her. “I want to try to move into something better, but I know I can’t do it,” she said.
FROM HOMEOWNER TO HOMELESS
Dawn Van Brunt had had enough of relying on Section 8 housing, the government’s rental assistance program.
So she enrolled in a community college to become a patient care technician and got a job in a hospital. Eventually, she saved enough money to buy a three-bedroom condominium in Freehold, N.J., the first home she’d ever owned.
“It was really the first thing I ever did in my life that I was really proud of, besides my kids,” the 50-year-old said.
After she left her job in 2009 to care for her father and brother, she said she had trouble paying the mortgage on the condo. Her dad was battling pancreatic cancer, and her brother was in poor health following a brain aneurysm.