Thousands in Pa. feel stuck in a high-stakes game of telephone with their homes, vital utilities on the line

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Pauletta Fajinmi waited more than six months to receive help from a Pennsylvania program to help homeowners recover from the pandemic.

Philadelphia Inquirer

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Pauletta Fajinmi had been waiting for more than six months.

In April, she applied to a Pennsylvania program that promises to help homeowners recover from the financial impact of the pandemic.

After Fajinmi’s husband died of COVID-19, in the spring of 2021, she found herself responsible for more than $5,000 in late mortgage payments on the house they had lived in together.

She felt like she was living in “survival mode.” The stress and grief made her hair fall out in clumps. She checked online for updates on her application every day, sometimes twice a day.

“It was a nightmare,” Fajinmi recalled.

Starting in 2020, federal protections allowed most homeowners to temporarily stop making mortgage payments without risking foreclosure. But by the start of 2022, those protections had largely expired. Pennsylvania received $350 million in federal aid to help fill that gap, offering homeowners a chance to catch up on debt from mortgages, property taxes, utility bills, and other housing costs.

Almost a year after it launched, however, the Pennsylvania Homeowner Assistance Fund (PAHAF) is overwhelmed by demand, interviews and public records show. The fund frequently struggles to get the information it needs from mortgage companies, causing delays and complaints from increasingly desperate applicants who say they cannot get updates from program workers.

Wait times depend largely on how responsive mortgage companies are to PAHAF’s requests to confirm how much someone owes, which can involve weeks or months of back-and-forth, administrators said. An application cannot move ahead until that information is provided.

By mid-December, more than 6,000 applications were in the final stage of approval, according to public data. Those people, mostly stuck in debt verification, had been waiting, on average, more than 6 months, said Mandy McIntyre, a PAHAF spokesperson.

Most applicants are not at risk of losing their homes while they wait, administrators and advocates said. In the majority of cases, federal rules require mortgage companies to pause foreclosure proceedings for 60 days once someone has applied to the program.

Still, in interviews with Spotlight PA, more than 20 applicants described how their initial hope curdled into anxiety, fear, and exasperation during the long wait.

Two said their applications were delayed for months after they thought they’d been approved, with only vague explanations from program workers. Three waited months for help with ongoing mortgage payments, only to be denied because of a requirement that was not advertised online when they applied. Four said their water or electricity was shut off while they waited for help catching up on utility bills.

“This program is not what you promised and absolutely not what the applicants thought they were getting into,” someone complained in an email to Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf’s office in October.

In an interview, administrators acknowledged there have been problems, but stressed they are making changes to speed up the process.

“We hear these things and we are always working to make improvements — and most of all to complete the mission of the program, which is to keep people in their homes,” said Kelly Wilson, a senior official at the Pennsylvania Housing Finance Agency, which oversees the program run by contractor Innovative Emergency Management, Inc.

After almost a year, Pennsylvania has only paid out about one-quarter of the funding available, public data show. (Pennsylvania’s rate of spending through the first six months was similar to those of other states, according to federal data.)

Fajinmi’s application was finally approved in November, more than six months after she began the process. The program contacted her mortgage company July 1, but did not receive the required information until Nov. 7, McIntyre said. Even after the payment was made, Fajinmi said it took her bank more than a month to apply it to her account because the bank claimed it needed more information from PAHAF, adding weeks of extra worry.

Thousands of other applicants are still waiting. Every few weeks, they receive the same email: “Due to an extremely high number of applications received, current processing times are slower than expected. We apologize for the wait times you may be experiencing and are working to resolve these issues.”

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Rooftops of homes in Blair County, Pennsylvania. Amanda Berg For Spotlight PA

‘We should have been foreclosing by now’

For PAHAF administrators, the most time-consuming part of the process is also one of the most crucial: confirming with someone’s mortgage company how much they owe.

But mortgage companies — often overwhelmed, short-staffed, and juggling requests from multiple states running their own assistance efforts — do not always respond promptly to the program’s inquiries, leaving thousands of applications in limbo.

One homeowner complained to PAHAF in July that their application seemed to be “in a black hole,” according to Facebook messages obtained by Spotlight PA through an open records request. The problem, a program worker replied, was the applicant’s mortgage company, Mr. Cooper, one of the largest in the U.S. “We’ve had a lot of trouble getting responses back from them.”

The program was waiting for Mr. Cooper to provide information for almost 500 customers, the PAHAF worker said — the most outstanding requests of any company. In a statement, a Mr. Cooper spokesperson said the company continues to work closely with the program to provide the required information and resolve discrepancies.

PAHAF sends participating companies weekly reports on pending applications, and officials have weekly phone calls with the companies that have the largest backlogs, McIntyre said. The companies have a strong incentive to work with the program: They stand to receive thousands of dollars per applicant. Still, some have told administrators they “simply do not have the bandwidth or processes in place to keep up,” McIntyre told one applicant via email in October.

The delays — multiplied across hundreds of companies and thousands of applications — have caused the program to fall short of its internal goal to get assistance to homeowners within two months. It typically takes longer than that just to confirm how much someone owes, McIntyre said.

Between February 2022, when PAHAF launched, and late December, the average wait time was roughly four-and-a-half months, she said. (This does not account for people seeking ongoing mortgage help.)

The prolonged back-and-forth leaves some applicants feeling as if they are playing a high-stakes game of telephone, relaying information from their mortgage company to the program and vice versa.

“I’ve gone above and beyond to provide relevant info and to keep everyone informed, but I do have a full time job,” one applicant wrote in a Facebook message to the program in June. “I sincerely don’t have the bandwidth to be on the phone (with the program and the bank) almost everyday.”

One woman, who asked not to be named to protect her family’s privacy, told PAHAF via Facebook Messenger in April that her lender had accused her of making the program up. The company told her they hadn’t heard from the program in weeks; program workers told her the company wasn’t giving them the information they needed.

The problem, public records show, was a minor mistake she had made on a crucial form, which program workers failed to catch. For weeks, they had been contacting the wrong company — “United Federal Credit Union” instead of “The United Federal Credit Union.”

Even after the confusion was resolved, however, an official at the credit union told the woman that the company was not hearing back from PAHAF. “I don’t even know who to talk to up there anymore?” the credit union worker said in an email. By this point, the woman was almost five months behind on the mortgage. “We should have been foreclosing by now,” he warned. (The credit union declined to comment.)

Another two weeks passed. An administrator apologized for the “constant delays,” telling the woman: “We are aware of a multitude of program/systems/process issues and are dedicated to fixing.”

Another three weeks. Her credit score dropped 160 points. The program reassured her that foreclosure proceedings were on hold, but her anxiety spiked when she received a notice from her lender with bold type reading: “Save Your Home From Foreclosure.”

“I deeply apologize for how difficult this has been,” the PAHAF official told her.

Another snag came two days later. Despite months of phone calls and emails from the program, her lender still had not signed a formal agreement to take part. The company finally received the payment in mid-July, more than six months after she first applied.

A PAHAF official followed up on Facebook to apologize again, saying that the “delays and challenges” in her case had been “flagged with top management” as an example of the need for changes. In a statement, McIntyre said administrators changed their process to prevent similar holdups and that the woman’s failure to promptly return a key document contributed to some of the delays.

By August, the woman had another problem: After waiting weeks for help with her water bill, her service had been shut off. The timing was awful. It was the week before school started, and her four boys couldn’t shower. She had to use her food stamps to buy water to cook and flush the toilet.

Despite several requests from the program to participate, including a phone call in early August, her local water authority insisted that it could not agree to take part without approval from its board. The woman’s water was turned off in the 11-day period between that phone call and the next scheduled board meeting.

The board later voted to participate, and after a few days with no water, the woman’s service was restored. Some other homeowners had to wait longer.

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Pennsylvania received $350 million in federal aid for mortgage relief. The Pennsylvania Homeowner Assistance Fund opened in February 2022. Amanda Berg For Spotlight PA

‘The power has been off now all week’

While mortgage companies are mostly required to pause the foreclosure process after someone applies to PAHAF, no similar restrictions exist for utility companies.

McIntyre said the program strives to prevent applicants’ utilities from being shut off, but companies are not legally obliged to comply with those requests. The program urges applicants who receive shut-off warnings to share them so their cases can be fast-tracked — an instruction that doesn’t always help.

In July, about four months after he first applied, Aaron Sim received warning that his power would soon be turned off because of his overdue balance of $833.

Sim sent a copy of his bill, which included a warning about the termination, to his caseworker. A few days later, he woke to a house that was oddly quiet. The whirring of the air conditioner was gone. It was one of the hottest weeks of the year, and inside it was sweltering, Sim said. The fridge and freezer were full of groceries that had to be thrown out; he lived off canned beets, tinned ravioli, and bread with peanut butter.

Sim sent the shut-off notice to the program the day he received it, but he said he didn’t hear anything back.

Several days later, he tried again, writing in an email: “I’m sorry to gripe but the power has been off now all week and I’m starting to develop some issues with trying to sleep, the heat, and not being able to use my cpap breathing machine.”

About a week later, Sim scraped together enough money to enter a payment agreement and turn the electricity back on. But he was $182 behind on his water bill as well. He’d already sent the program the notice warning that his service would be disconnected.

Nonetheless, in September, the water was turned off. To prepare, he’d filled gallon jugs of water, which he poured over himself in the shower.

In a statement, McIntyre said that despite multiple reminders, Sim didn’t return a form PAHAF needed in order to contact his power company; Sim disputed this. McIntyre said the program asked Sim’s water company to postpone the shut-off, but was unsuccessful.

It’s unclear how many homeowners have had their utilities terminated while waiting for help. In some cases, applicants complained that their gas or electricity had been turned off for weeks or even months, according to documents obtained by Spotlight PA through Right-to-Know requests.

In October, a PAHAF supervisor emailed several colleagues about an applicant who had been without power for more than a month. The applicant told workers that the shut-off had left her without heat or hot water, and that raw sewage was backing up in her basement. “Can we expedite this review please!” the supervisor asked. McIntyre declined to comment on this example specifically, but said that in a number of cases, applicants only told the program after their utilities had already been disconnected.

State officials wanted to avoid this: One of the program’s goals is to prevent people from having their utilities shut off in the first place.

In May, administrators more than doubled the maximum amount homeowners could receive in utility aid and scrapped a requirement that was slowing down approvals, a memo shows.

Demand for utility assistance was much higher than anticipated, they noted, and utility companies could disconnect someone’s service in a “tight timeframe,” leaving the program with only a narrow window to prevent shut-offs.

For months, PAHAF tried to help applicants with pending shut-offs by confirming to their utility companies that they had applied. But five major utility companies told Spotlight PA that would not be enough to postpone a shut-off — the utilities would need a pledge of payment for a specific amount. McIntyre said the program had success preventing shut-offs with these utilities. Nonetheless, in late September, the program began providing payment pledges, as well.

Another policy also complicated the program’s efforts to prevent shut-offs.

When applicants sought help with housing expenses like utility bills as well as their mortgage, the utility aid would not be provided until the mortgage debt had been dealt with. This meant that some requests for utility assistance were left on hold for months, causing people to fall further behind.

Officials said the rule ensured that applicants’ requests for help with other housing costs did not jeopardize their chances of receiving mortgage assistance by putting them over the program’s per-household cap, originally $30,000.

“It was a conscious decision trying to make sure that the most important aspect was taken care of,” said Wilson, the senior official at the Pennsylvania Housing Finance Agency.

Three applicants who waited months for help with utilities or property taxes told Spotlight PA they did not know these requests could not move forward until their mortgage aid was approved. If program workers had made this clear, they said, they would have made different financial decisions. In a statement, McIntyre said that staff explain the policy “to each and every applicant,” but acknowledged that not knowing about it “became an issue for some applicants.”

Wilson said the policy did not make it harder for the program to prevent utility shut-offs. If someone is at risk of having their utilities disconnected, she said, “it pushes everything to the front,” and PAHAF intervenes as soon as possible. Still, some applicants found they could not rely on those interventions, and ended up further in debt or behind on other bills in order to keep their utilities on, records show.

Keisha Welsh applied in March, hoping for help with her gas bill. By May, she was more than $1,000 behind. In September, she received a notice warning that her gas would be shut off unless she caught up.

She sent the notice to a caseworker and was assured that her application would be “rushed.” But a week later, with no updates and time running out, Welsh said she accepted the payment plan offered by her gas company, which required a $600 down payment — money the program’s rules say cannot be reimbursed — and left her unable to make her car payment that month.

In a statement about Welsh’s case, McIntyre said that “many applicants receive warnings that they may be at risk of shutoff” and that applicants who are further along in the shut-off process, or whose service has already been terminated, “must take priority.”

Welsh told program workers, via Facebook and email, that entering the payment plan would leave her with $175 until her next paycheck.

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Alexis VanBuren’s application was approved in August, but was delayed another three months after her mortgage company needed to update some of the information it had provided. Amanda Berg For Spotlight PA

‘It’s like there is nothing they can tell me’

On top of the delays, applicants have consistently complained about a lack of communication from PAHAF, according to interviews and public records.

“Every time I call, it’s like there is nothing they can tell me,” one applicant wrote in a Facebook message to the program in July.

“I don’t know what to do at this point since I can’t get through to anyone,” another applicant said in September.

“We are desperate, as are all who have applied, and beginning to think it is all a hoax,” came another complaint in October.

Applicants told Spotlight PA that their assigned caseworkers stopped responding to them and missed scheduled appointments to call, that they were bounced from one worker to another, and that the program’s call center only provided generic updates. The communication problems, they said, heightened the stress of the long wait.

When Sandi Zembrowski received a grant agreement for her late mortgage payments, she immediately signed it electronically. A confirmation email arrived moments later.

Then, months passed and her bank didn’t get the money. Zembrowski tried to find out what had happened, but said her caseworker missed appointments to call her and stopped responding to emails. She kept ringing the call center but said she couldn’t get a straight answer about where things stood. “It’s just unacceptable,” she said in November, still without answers or payments.

In response to Spotlight PA’s questions, McIntyre said Zembrowski did not sign the grant agreement using the required software, DocuSign. But Zembrowski’s copy of the agreement shows that she did. Zembrowski said no one from PAHAF ever raised this issue with her; the first she learned of it was from a Spotlight PA reporter.

McIntyre declined to elaborate when asked about the apparent DocuSign discrepancy and disagreed that Zembrowski had difficulty reaching her caseworker. But in an interview and written responses to Spotlight PA, she acknowledged broader problems with the program’s communication with applicants, and said administrators were working to address them.

For months, the PAHAF website also failed to tell applicants seeking ongoing mortgage assistance that they had to meet additional income requirements to qualify. Officials said the policy was “internally implemented” in February, when the program launched, but was not added to the website until May, after applicants raised the issue. The policy only affected about 50 applicants out of thousands through September 2022, according to a state report, but some said they felt blindsided when they learned they were not eligible for the extra help based on a requirement they had not known about.

McIntyre emphasized that the program has made changes in response to applicants’ feedback. In September, the program introduced a form allowing people at risk of having their utilities shut off to prioritize other types of assistance over mortgage aid, in an attempt to reduce wait times. Starting in October, applicants no longer had to sign and return grant agreements; instead, the money could be paid out with no further action required on their part. And in November, the total amount of assistance homeowners can receive was increased from $30,000 to $50,000. Housing advocates had pushed for a higher cap since before the program launched.

When Alexis VanBuren’s application for mortgage assistance was approved in late August, she thought the wait was almost over. By October, the money still hadn’t been paid. Her mind ran in circles. What could be taking so long? “It’s like playing Russian roulette,” she said.

VanBuren’s mortgage company needed to change several small details in the information it gave to the program, McIntyre said. By the time these were resolved, the original grant agreement had expired, which meant PAHAF had to start the process of confirming how much VanBuren owed all over again.

In December, VanBuren was relieved to learn that her mortgage company had finally received the money. While waiting, she had watched her grandson start the fourth grade, broken both her arms in a car accident, and recovered enough to go back to work. It had been more than nine months.

WHILE YOU’RE HERE… If you learned something from this story, pay it forward and become a member of Spotlight PA so someone else can in the future at spotlightpa.org/donate. Spotlight PA is funded by foundations and readers like you who are committed to accountability journalism that gets results.

How Spotlight PA reported this story

Spotlight PA spoke to more than 20 people who had applied to the Pennsylvania Homeowner Assistance Fund, many of whom shared emails, text messages, program records, mortgage statements, and utility bills to help document their experience. We also spoke to attorneys, advocates, and housing counselors.

All of the homeowners who are quoted by name, or whose experience is discussed at length, signed releases giving the program permission to respond to Spotlight PA’s questions about their experiences.

To ensure program administrators could respond in detail, Spotlight PA shared several rounds of written questions and summaries of applicants’ experiences. Program officials provided several detailed written responses and spoke with a reporter in an hour-long interview.

Spotlight PA also reviewed hundreds of pages of records obtained under the state’s Right-to-Know law, including Facebook messages between applicants and administrators, a week’s worth of emails to the program’s customer service inbox, and emails and summaries of phone calls about the program received by Gov. Tom Wolf’s office over the course of 2022.

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