Foreclosures Hit Connecticut Cities, Eastern Towns Hard
KENNETH R. GOSSELIN
June 15, 2008
Shirley Reimann powers up her computer most mornings at the social services agency she supervises in Killingly and immediately runs a Google search: Windham County foreclosures.
What she sees has her worried.
The number of houses and condominiums for sale in Windham County as a result of foreclosure has climbed from five last winter, when Reimann first started tracking them, to more than 40, as of last week. Telephone calls to her office tell the same story: There were 14 from homeowners falling behind in their payments last month, up from "next to none" a year ago.
"We have a shortage of apartments, and rents are high," Reimann said. "Where are these people going to go?"
A town-by-town analysis by The Courant of 16 months of Connecticut home mortgage data through the end of April shows that Windham County is hardest hit, with 23 foreclosure-related filings for every 1,000 households, compared with 17 in the state as a whole.
Throughout the state, the numbers are rising — reaching 6,500 in the first four months of this year, or 40 percent ahead of last year's pace, according to The Warren Group, which tracks the housing market in New England.
But so far the state's foreclosures and home mortgage delinquencies have not led to the sort of crisis that has gripped California, Michigan, Florida and Nevada, the nexus of the country's mortgage troubles. In most Connecticut towns and cities, the incidence of homeowners losing their houses is scattered thinly across neighborhoods.
Still, the state's foreclosures and distress sales are tamping down the value of houses not just in eastern Connecticut but throughout the state, especially in the bigger cities and lower-income towns. A Warren Group report showed the statewide decline in median sale prices reaching 9.8 percent for the year ending in April.
And economists warn that if recession hits Connecticut harder than expected, the foreclosure problem could deepen fast. Job losses, so far relatively mild, could pick up momentum and strain household budgets already under pressure from rising gas, home heating oil and food prices.
"We're holding up OK so far," said Donald L. Klepper-Smith, an economist at DataCore Partners Inc. in New Haven. "But I think there is a risk of increased foreclosure because of energy prices."
Reimann, whose nonprofit Access Community Action Agency provides social services throughout eastern Connecticut, shares those concerns. Today, 150 gallons of home heating oil costs $682, but Access can only provide $675 for an entire season of energy assistance to the neediest families, she said.
"These are the choices they have to make: heating their home or paying the mortgage," Reimann said.
A Grand Thoroughfare
Northeastern Connecticut has long struggled with the loss of manufacturing and defense jobs. It has also been hurt by its dependence on employment in nearby Rhode Island, where the housing and economic downturn is the deepest of the six-state New England region.
Although service sector jobs at the casinos and in new, mega-shopping centers are replacing some employment from traditional industries, they cannot match the hourly wages.
Just a short walk down Broad Street from Reimann's office in Killingly, there have been four homes with foreclosure-related filings since the year began. It's easy to pick out two of the properties; both are Victorians with wide front porches. Front lawns are overgrown. At one there is mail spilling out of the mailbox, a sign the house was recently abandoned.
Neighbors on the street worry about the blight on their neighborhood, once a grand thoroughfare, now characterized as a neighborhood in decline. They worry the decay will pull down their property values.
"I've been here 28 years," said Don Costello, who owns a funeral home in town. "Of course I'm concerned. This used to be one of the nicest streets in town."
Studies have shown that once a property goes into foreclosure it immediately lowers the value of surrounding properties by $5,000.
Lucien Laliberty, a longtime residential real estate broker in northeastern Connecticut, disputes that measure, but says properties in foreclosure clearly are dragging down the price of other similarly styled homes in surrounding neighborhoods.
"Some foreclosures are selling at bargain basement prices," Laliberty said. "Investors are back in the market, buying them cheap."
Foreclosures have cut across all price ranges but are most prevalent in houses and condominiums that were priced at $200,000 or less, Laliberty said.
Laliberty estimates that prices have declined as much as 18 percent in some parts of the market as a result of an increase in foreclosures.
Most callers to Reimann's agency are people with adjustable-rate mortgages who had low introductory rates that are now resetting higher, she said. That echoes what's happening across the country.
"People were making a choice when they went into an adjustable-rate loan," Reimann said. "Homeownership. This is the American Dream. They were never looking at what would happen if the rate went up."
Deep In Debt
Rising interest rates aren't the problem for Ann Davis, who was seeking the same dream but is now facing foreclosure on her three-bedroom, two-bath Cape on Green Hollow Road in the Danielson section of Killingly. A single, divorced mother of two grown sons, Davis charged up tens of thousands in credit card debt to furnish her home after she bought it five years ago.
The registered nurse, a former sales administrator, tried to dig herself out of debt by refinancing from a 9-percent, fixed-rate mortgage to a 6-percent loan, also fixed. She also took out an extra $50,000 because the rising housing market had quickly given her equity.
She paid off some of her credit card bills, but quickly ran up new ones. She stayed afloat until last year when she was out of work six months.
"It didn't take long to fall behind," Davis said, especially as food and gas prices also rose.
Today, Davis owes about $70,000, mostly on credit cards — not including the balance on her mortgage.
Davis says she takes responsibility for her actions and has learned that you have to save first before you go out and buy expensive things.
She says she could have sold her home, but it's her home, built for her.
A number of state and federal programs are coming online, or being debated, to aid distressed homeowners and prod lenders to settle rather than foreclose. The state has $130 million in place in three initiatives that, among other things, provide direct assistance for refinancing loans.
But the state and federal actions, by most accounts, will at best slow the rise in foreclosures, and won't necessarily help people such as Davis if their home values, incomes and debt levels leave them far short of daylight.
Davis now hopes to file for bankruptcy and work out a payment plan with her lender to keep her house. She takes pride in ownership, planting a perennial garden of hosta and bleeding heart by her front porch and adorning an urn with cascading petunias.
She's also fond of the many things she furnished the house with, some antiques, like the banjo clock hanging near the front door or the Toby jars on the mantel.
"I'm just hoping my grandchildren and my children will enjoy them," Davis said.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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