The calls start with a tired voice on the phone.
"I’m losing my house. Can you help me?"
I wince every time the calls come because I know they’re made out of desperation. I’m nobody’s mortgage expert. I can barely balance a checkbook. By the time people have read a few of my columns on home foreclosure they’re at wit’s end and reaching for the slightest thread of hope.
Unfortunately, there are no words or websites or government programs capable of instantly assisting many people through the nightmarish quagmire associated with trying to fight off home foreclosure.
A few years ago, most Southern Nevada homeowners wouldn’t have dreamed they would be asking such a question. They lived in "recession-proof" Las Vegas. This was the last great American boomtown. Jobs were plentiful, home ownership a fairly simple matter and housing prices were rocketing skyward.
Now such agonized pleas come once a week, often more.
After two years of politically motivated national media pundits scolding troubled homebuyers for being irresponsible, such vilification at last has gone almost silent.
The truth is, a lot of very responsible people are facing foreclosure. Gail Burks of the Nevada Fair Housing Center had it right when she told a reporter, "It’s like being on the Titanic. It doesn’t matter if you are in first class, the sides of the boat or the bowels of the boat, we’re all going down."
But not without a fierce fight, my callers say.
They try working with the banks — almost entirely without success. And even when they’ve managed to wind through the maze of recordings and message service brush-offs and actually reach a human being, they’re disappointed to find not everyone actually seems to want to help. Even when they get help, they often find the assistance is only temporary. For many lenders there’s more money in watching the drowning slip beneath the waves.
Family, friends and complete strangers have faced another question: to walk away from a home whose value, through no fault of their own, has plummeted 40 to 70 percent, or hang tough and keep writing those monthly checks despite the fact they might not live long enough to see their house break the surface again.
All these troubles are exacerbated by the fact that Southern Nevada sits at the epicenter not only of America’s home foreclosure crisis, but of mortgage fraud. In June, the Southern Nevada Mortgage Fraud Task Force revealed some of the findings of its ongoing nationwide investigation into scams that locally have generated nearly $247 million in losses.
So in addition to a national recession that has pounded valley residents more than most, Southern Nevada also is considered a hustler’s paradise.
The FBI called the area "ground zero" in the Operation Stolen Dreams mortgage fraud investigation, and 10 percent of the more than 1,200 nationwide defendants were charged here. Attorney General Eric Holder had it right when he said, "Mortgage fraud ruins lives, destroys families and devastates whole communities, so attacking the problem from every possible direction is vital."
But in many ways, prosecuting the crooks is the easy part. My calls are from legitimate people.
Most end the same way. I find myself giving condolences and very little else.
Although members of Nevada’s congressional delegation — most recently Reps. Shelley Berkley and Dina Titus — have made an effort to open doors and increase the flow of information, the sad fact is the government’s best efforts are arriving too late to help the majority.
While assistance travels uphill, homeowners under foreclosure pressure go downhill fast.
Meanwhile, the Nevada Department of Business and Industry’s website foreclosurehelp.nv.gov as well as nvhopeathome.org offer reliable information and plenty of warnings about mortgage help scams.
If it’s any solace, callers, you’re not in this alone.
John L. Smith’s column appears Sunday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday. E-mail him at Smith@reviewjournal.com or call (702) 383-0295. He also blogs at lvrj.com/blogs/smith.