Nearly everyone at a hearing yesterday in City Hall expressed admiration for Philadelphia's nearly year-old residential foreclosure-modification program.
Yet not everyone agreed it was right for all of Pennsylvania, as a state House Commerce Committee learned during testimony on a measure that would require every county to establish similar "conciliation" programs.
"We'd like to see this as a temporary provision, to end once the foreclosure crisis is over," said Robert Rupel, president and chief executive officer of Lafayette Bank of Lehigh Valley, echoing a recommendation that the Pennsylvania Bankers Association made a year ago.
Rupel and Bruce Foulke, president and CEO of American Heritage Federal Credit Union of Philadelphia, urged that the bill, whose prime sponsor is State Rep. Michael McGeehan (D., Phila.), make programs "optionable by county," rather than mandatory; let borrowers choose to "opt in," rather than require participation, and mandate quarterly or semiannual reporting to gauge success.
Foulke, whose credit union has 100,000 members in Philadelphia, Bucks, and Montgomery Counties, said his approach to reducing foreclosures had been through prepurchase education and helping borrowers in trouble.
That way, "we've had just two foreclosures in two years," Foulke said, while acknowledging that McGeehan's bill and the Philadelphia program were steps in the right direction.
Tom Puleo, whose Philadelphia law firm Goldbeck, McCafferty & McKeever handles hundreds of foreclosures, said the bill should discontinue collection of the sheriff's commission imposed after a mortgage-foreclosure judgment is entered.
His firm also said it believed the Pennsylvania Housing Finance Agency - which administers highly successful foreclosure-avoidance programs, including the Home Emergency Mortgage Assistance Program (HEMAP) - should oversee "pre-foreclosure" filing conferences between lenders and borrowers.
John Dodds, director of the Philadelphia Unemployment Project, told the panel that the state had not consistently funded HEMAP, making programs like the city's necessary elsewhere in the state.
"HEMAP is barely making it," he said, even though the program has lent $211 million to troubled homeowners since its inception in 1983 and has been repaid $237 million, "with interest."
In a letter to the committee, Butler County Judge Marilyn J. Horan cautioned that procedures appropriate and effective in larger counties "may not be as effective or appropriate" in smaller ones.
Still, State Rep. Rosita Youngblood (D., Phila.) said, a mandatory program is needed, not to rein in state-based lenders, but because of "warehouse" lenders like Citibank and Bank of America Corp. that do not abide by state rules.
State Rep. W. Curtis Thomas (D., Phila.) - whose father was scammed into taking on a bigger mortgage he did not need - told the lenders they needed to get their ideas into the committee now, because the foreclosure crisis needs to be addressed quickly.
"I was with Gov. Rendell last July 4 when he signed the new foreclosure-prevention legislation into law," Thomas said. "This year, I want to spend July 4 with my family."