After telling a group of workers laid off from COVID-19 shutdowns that it wouldn’t approve federal aid to help them pay up to $1,000 a month in home mortgage payments, Wells Fargo Bank on Tuesday said it had had a change of heart and would let them use the money to pay the bank what they owe, less than a week before the program is due to expire.
“After additional discussions,” the bank will be “pleased to be able to accept funds from the [Pennsylvania Mortgage Assistance] Program for all eligible homeowners that have been approved and submitted by the state,” the bank said in a statement released Tuesday by spokesman James Baum.
The program offers up to $1,000 a month for six months to homeowners who need mortgage assistance due to coronavirus closures. It was established in the summer with $25 million from the federal CARES Act. But less than a third of the low-interest loan funding was requested by the initial Sept. 30 deadline. So Gov. Tom Wolf signed an emergency order allowing applications through Nov. 4. All financial assistance to homeowners must be paid by Nov. 30.
The bank’s turnaround followed two days in which Wells Fargo had failed to detail its reasons for refusing the money, in response to Inquirer queries.
In letters received last weekend, the bank told borrowers already preapproved for the program by the Pennsylvania Housing Finance Agency that it would not accept and pass on the aid if they owed more than $1,000 a month.
“Who in Philadelphia can get a mortgage under $1,000 nowadays?” asked Pamela Raines of South Philadelphia, who was laid off from her job at the Kimmel Center when COVID-19 restrictions shut down shows last spring.
She hadn’t expected Wells Fargo to pay anything above the program’s $1,000-a-month limit, for the two months the state said she was eligible for. But on Saturday the bank “rescinded the grant because the mortgage payment is over $1,000,” she said.
She called Wells Fargo, got no explanation she could make sense of, called the state agency, and was told Wells Fargo had unilaterally decided, back on Nov. 6, not to approve anyone whose payments totaled more than $1,000 a month.
The San Francisco-based bank, the largest by deposits in the Philadelphia area, had earlier this fall agreed, then reneged, then agreed under public pressure to participate in the program in the first place.
In its statement, the bank pointed out it already was giving “customers impacted by COVID-19″ other aid, such as “fee waivers, payment deferrals, and other expanded assistance.”
The program, as originally envisioned by Pennsylvania’s Republican-led legislature, at first included a $1,000-a-month limit. Anyone paying more would have been automatically ineligible.
But that limit was waived by the state after banks including Wells Fargo objected, noting that recent home buyers in Philadelphia and other cities often pay mortgages that cost more than $1,000 a month, even for modest homes, said Leo Elliott, a home loan paralegal at Philadelphia Legal Assistance, which has been helping laid-off workers apply for the grants.
”I wonder why, after flip-flopping on the whole PMAP participation, they would create extraneous terms on the program?” Raines asked. Especially because it’s not the bank’s money, she added. It looked, for a few days, as if Wells Fargo were trying to drive borrowers who had been told they qualified for aid deep into default.
Acquan Watson, a furloughed prison worker, and Margo Jones, a laid-off United Airlines flight attendant from Northeast Philadelphia, got similar last-minute turndowns from Wells Fargo after they had been approved by the housing agency. Like Raines, they appealed, with help from Elliott’s program.
“Wells Fargo is acting like the Bloods and the Crips, they give all or nothing,” Jones said. “My payment is $1,072, and they are declining $1,000 because I am $72 over the limit they set.” She was approved for six months by the state, before the bank refused to take the money.
“Wells has already publicly acknowledged its commitment to accepting payments under the program,” Elliott pointed out in the homeowners’ appeals.
Elliott said that Wells Fargo had also been “dragging its feet” on approving grants to those whose mortgages are less than $1,000 and that some other lenders are also slow, leaving approvals to “come down to the wire in many cases.”
“Ours finally went through. We are going to be OK,” said Robyn Stephens, a Southwest Philadelphia homeowner whose partner, a laid-off retail employee, rode the roller coaster when Wells Fargo said it would accept program funds, then pulled out, then got back in again earlier this year.