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Second wave of foreclosures possible

As unemployment skyrockets, a second wave of foreclosures is building, economic observers say, fed by people with good credit who could lose their houses because they have lost their jobs and can't find work.

As unemployment skyrockets, a second wave of foreclosures is building, economic observers say, fed by people with good credit who could lose their houses because they have lost their jobs and can't find work.

In this downturn, the experts say, the economy is not following the traditional rules, which is limiting solutions. And thus far, government efforts to deal with foreclosures remain focused on the subprime-mortgage mess that brought the economy to its knees but that, in reality, affected a small percentage of homeowners nationwide.

Although reduced or lost income has long been the major reason homeowners get behind on payments, the tsunami of subprime-mortgage failures that began inundating the Southwest, California, and Florida beginning in 2006 washed unemployment into the background.

By 2008, "it was subprime all the time," Steven Adamske, House Financial Services Committee communications director, told reporters last month at a meeting in Washington. "That situation has changed."

The Philadelphia region did not sustain as a big a subprime hit as other areas. During the real estate boom, housing prices here doubled while they were quadrupling in other parts of the country, so there was not a huge need to stretch finances to the breaking point to buy.

"For us, loss or decline in income has always been the major reason why consumers have sought us out," said Patricia Hasson, executive director of the Consumer Credit Counseling Service of Delaware Valley.

"No matter what the cause, people tend to wait to act until the foreclosure process starts," she said. "Often, the best we can do to help is to show them that they are not alone."

Krystyna Buoncristiano, 45, of Northeast Philadelphia, might say that alone is just how she has been feeling.

A mother of two who has been unemployed for a year, Buoncristiano refuses to fall into foreclosure. She insists on paying her mortgage to hold onto her home of 13 years, paying off late fees and interest for the two months she was delinquent.

Buoncristiano said she's been advised not to pay. She said one nonprofit counseling agency she contacted early on told her to put her house up for sale because there was no way to avert foreclosure.

Then there were the scam offers to take care of her problem "for $2,000, with no guarantees." Those alternated with her lender, CitiMortgage, "asking if I had a job yet," Buoncristiano said.

Daily calls have subsided to twice weekly as Buoncristiano and Citi work to modify her mortgage. But the lender has promised that before, she said.

For 13 years, Buoncristiano said, she paid on time and had money in the bank until she was laid off from her job as an administrative assistant. She even called Citi in October to warn of the effects of her prolonged unemployment, but was told nothing could be done until she was delinquent.

"The system wants us to fail," she said.

The current recession is unusual because it began with a housing crisis.

"For the first time in U.S. history, housing is the cause of a recession rather than a casualty of it," said Kevin Gillen, vice president of Econsult of Philadelphia. "The further we go into this bursting bubble, the deeper into uncharted territory we go."

Generally, foreclosures are at the tail end of a predictable cycle, "triggered by an economic downturn that leads to unemployment," said Rick Sharga, chief economist of RealtyTrac of Irvine, Calif., which tracks mortgage delinquencies nationwide.

"When this cycle started in early 2006, unemployment was at historically low levels, and the economy was growing," Sharga said. "There's no precedent to either the root cause of this meltdown or the back-to-back foreclosure waves, which makes addressing the problem complicated and difficult."

John Dodds, executive director of the Philadelphia Unemployment Project, said the government's response - modification or refinancing of toxic mortgages - is ineffective for people who are unemployed if their income is insufficient to pay even modified loan payments.

With the recession in its 20th month and long-term unemployment at its highest level since data collection began in 1948, more than 1.5 million workers are expected to exhaust their unemployment benefits by year's end.

And governmental budget troubles compound the problem. For example, Pennsylvania's Homeowners Emergency Mortgage Assistance Program (HEMAP), from which Buoncristiano is seeking a loan, is not being funded at a level necessary to deal with the rising unemployment rate, Dodd said.

Stephanie Butler, senior counselor at Mount Airy USA in Philadelphia, said she was working to obtain a HEMAP loan for a state employee facing foreclosure.

But the Pennsylvania legislature's failure to pass a budget means the employee won't be paid until the funding problem is solved.

"And without proof of income," Butler said, "we can't get her the loan."