The VA stops foreclosures for thousands of veterans after NPR investigation
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The Department of Veterans Affairs has announced that it is halting foreclosures for six months for thousands of veterans. Many were on the verge of needlessly losing their homes. The move follows an investigation by NPR that first reported the problem a week ago. NPR's Chris Arnold reports.
CHRIS ARNOLD, BYLINE: A lot of veterans and service members will be breathing easier this Thanksgiving. That's because many were about to lose their homes through no fault of their own. We first reported on one of those families last week. Ray and Becky Queen were showing us around their farm in Bartlesville, Okla.
BECKY QUEEN: This is Cagney and Lacey...
(SOUNDBITE OF DUCKS QUACKING)
B QUEEN: ...Our ducks.
ARNOLD: The couple lives here with their two young kids. Ray served in Iraq and the Army. Inside their house, he says he was wounded by an improvised explosive device, or IED.
RAY QUEEN: And just so you're aware, I have brain damage from my time in Iraq. So there's a lot of different things that don't work the way they're supposed to anymore. And my memory is not great.
ARNOLD: For decades, the federal government has helped veterans like Queen to buy homes through its VA loan program. And during the pandemic, tens of thousands of people with VA loans took what's called a COVID forbearance. That allowed them to skip six or 12 mortgage payments if they had a hardship. When Becky's mom died of COVID, she had to take an extended leave from work and lost her job. Last year the couple says their mortgage company told them they could stop paying their mortgage while they got back on their feet financially.
B QUEEN: I very specifically asked, how does this work? And they said, we're taking all of your payments. We're bundling them, and we're putting them at the end.
ARNOLD: That is, the missed payments would move to the back end of their loan term so they could just resume their regular mortgage payments. But that is not how it worked out because a year ago, the VA ended the program that let people actually do that, stranding families like the Queens with bad options that many couldn't afford - either pay a big lump sum to catch up or refinance at today's high rates. We spoke to the Queens right after they'd received a foreclosure notice.
B QUEEN: My heart dropped, and, like, my hands were shaking. It was scary.
R QUEEN: How does that happen? This is supposed to be a program that y'all have to help people in times of crisis so you don't take their house from them.
ARNOLD: NPR spoke with other veterans around the country who were in the same boat. Karen Whitley is a former Navy aviation electrician who lives in Lakeland, Fla.
KAREN WHITLEY: I feel like I've been hoodwinked. I feel like I've been scammed almost. You know, next thing we know, the sheriff's going to be at the door. I mean, we live here. We have nowhere else to go.
ARNOLD: Jeanelle Reanier-Briggs lives in Lacey, Wash.
JEANELLE REANIER-BRIGGS: They put the house into foreclosure. My kids came home from school, and they were taping stuff onto our door. They're like, here's this. And I opened it. And, I mean, I literally almost threw up.
ARNOLD: Mortgage industry data shows there are 6,000 people with VA loans who took forbearance who are currently in the foreclosure process and 34,000 more who were delinquent. Meanwhile, the VA has been working on a new program to help, but it won't be up and running for four or five months, so it was going to be too late to save many of those families from losing their homes. Ray Queen wanted to know why the VA couldn't just stop foreclosing on people until the new program was available.
R QUEEN: Let us keep paying towards our regular mortgage between now and then. And then once the VA has that fixed, then we come back, and we address the situation. That seems like the adult, mature thing to do, not put a family through hell.
ARNOLD: We interviewed the top official in the VA loan program. His name is John Bell, and this is me asking him directly about what Ray Queen said. Why not just stop foreclosing on people?
Why put families through hell, he said, if we don't have to, if there's going to be help in a few months?
JOHN BELL: I have never - I haven't said through this interview that - you know, that we aren't exploring all options at this point in time because we certainly are. We owe it to our veterans to make sure that we're giving them every opportunity to be able to stay in the home.
ARNOLD: After our first story aired, a group of four U.S. senators fired off a letter to the VA, including Senator Jon Tester of Montana. He's chair of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee. He posted a video, too.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
JON TESTER: The Biden administration needs to act now to address this crisis. Our veterans risked their lives serving our country, and they earned the home loan guaranteed benefit. They're having the rug pulled out from underneath them, and that is totally unacceptable.
ARNOLD: The senators asked the VA to halt the foreclosures, and on Friday evening the VA said it's now doing just that. Steve Sharpe is a senior attorney with the National Consumer Law Center.
STEVE SHARPE: Very relieved. The VA's decision to put that pause in place, give folks six months, let their program come out - it will help thousands of people.
ARNOLD: That includes Ray and Becky Queen. This is me telling them about it the night the VA made the announcement.
The VA is now going to stop foreclosing while they figure out this new program and get it up and running. So people in your guys' situation can take advantage of it and not lose your house for no reason.
R QUEEN: That's awesome.
B QUEEN: Yay.
ARNOLD: The couple says they're still upset they had to go through months of stress and worry and almost declared bankruptcy when they didn't do anything wrong. But...
R QUEEN: The fact that telling our story and getting some sort of justice for what's going on with our problems and everything else also helps 40,000 other veterans - that's absolutely amazing to me.
ARNOLD: The VA says any homeowner who's behind on their payments can get in touch by calling or visiting va.gov. Chris Arnold, NPR News.
(SOUNDBITE OF JEAN CARNE SONG, "THE SUMMERTIME") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.
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