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The VA has its fix for a home loan debacle, but many vets who got hurt won't get help

Edmund Garcia, an Iraq War veteran, stands outside his home in Rosharon, Texas. Like many vets, he was told if he took a mortgage forbearance, his monthly payments wouldn't go up afterward.
Joseph Bui for NPR
Edmund Garcia, an Iraq War veteran, stands outside his home in Rosharon, Texas. Like many vets, he was told if he took a mortgage forbearance, his monthly payments wouldn't go up afterward.

The Department of Veterans Affairs announced a long-awaited new program on Wednesday to help thousands of veterans who were left on the verge of losing their homes after a pandemic aid effort went awry.

But it appears that many who were harmed financially won't qualify to get this new help.

"The purpose of this program is to assist the more than 40,000 veterans who are at the highest risk of foreclosure," Josh Jacobs, VA undersecretary for benefits, said at a media roundtable introducing the Veterans Affairs Servicing Purchase program, or "VASP."

What senior VA officials failed to say on their call with reporters is that the VA put veterans in that tough spot in the first place. In 2022, the VA abruptly ended part of its COVID mortgage forbearance program while tens of thousands of vets were still in the middle of it — trapping them with no affordable way to get current on their loans.

VASP is supposed to fix that problem, by allowing the VA to offer these homeowners loan modifications with interest rates that are well below the market rates on regular mortgages. The VA will own mortgages itself and will offer vets who qualify a modified home loan with a 2.5% interest rate.

But not everybody who got hurt is going to qualify. Most vets who have already ended up in much more costly modified loans won't get the help.

The VA forbearance fiasco

In November, the VA halted foreclosures for all homeowners with loans backed by the VA after an NPR investigation revealed that the agency had left thousands of vets facing foreclosure through no fault of their own.

COVID mortgage forbearance programs were set up by Congress during the pandemic to help people with federally backed loans by giving them an affordable way to skip mortgage payments and then get current on their loans again.

But in late 2022, the VA abruptly ended its Partial Claim Payment (PCP) program, which had allowed a homeowner at the end of a forbearance to move the missed payments to the back of the loan term and keep the interest rate on their original mortgage.

That effectively turned a well-intentioned program into a bait-and-switch trap. Veterans say they were told before they took a forbearance that their regular monthly mortgage payments wouldn't increase and their missed payments could be moved to the back of their loan term. But after the VA scrapped the PCP program, vets were told they needed to come up with all the missed payments at once.

"Almost $23,000? How am I gonna come up with that?" Edmund Garcia asked earlier this year in an interview with NPR. Garcia is a combat veteran who served in Iraq. He bought a house in Rosharon, Texas, with a VA home loan. After his wife lost her job during the pandemic, his mortgage company offered him a forbearance.

Edmund Garcia holds a photo of himself in 2000 as a specialist in charge of handling ammunition and supplies while he was in the Army.
/ Joseph Bui for NPR
/
Joseph Bui for NPR
Edmund Garcia holds a photo of himself in 2000 as a specialist in charge of handling ammunition and supplies while he was in the Army.

The VA had other loan modification options, but those essentially required a new mortgage with a new interest rate, and rates were rising sharply — from around 3% up to around 7%.

Garcia was told that if he couldn't pay back all the missed payments at once, he would have to accept a loan modification that would result in much bigger monthly bills. His old mortgage rate was 2.4%; the offer would increase that to 7.1% with payments $700 a month higher. Alternatively, he could get foreclosed on.

"I deal with PTSD, I deal with anxiety, and, you know, my heart is beating through my chest when I was having this conversation," he told NPR. "My daughter ... she's asking, 'Dad, are you OK?' "

Now it appears that any veterans who succumbed to that pressure and accepted these higher-cost loan modifications will not be able to get help through the VA's new rescue plan.

Vets pushed into high-cost loans won't get help

"If you are not in default, this program is not for you," John Bell, the director of the VA home loan program, told NPR at a press call this week. "And you have to be in default a certain amount of time."

In other words, veterans who have been making payments on these higher-cost loans are not eligible. And it's looking like that will exclude a lot of people.

Data obtained by NPR suggests that thousands of veterans ended up in modified loans with significantly higher interest rates following a mortgage forbearance.

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The fine print to the VA's new program also says that if a loan was modified, the borrower has to have made payments for at least six months, and then be in default for at least three months, to be eligible.

That doesn't seem like the right approach to some policy experts.

"We definitely don't think borrowers should have to pay six months on a bad, unaffordable modification," said Steve Sharpe with the nonprofit National Consumer Law Center.

Also, the rules mean that if a veteran tried to pay a more costly loan modification for a few months, then defaulted and couldn't afford it, they wouldn't qualify.

"If they fail on an unaffordable modification, they should be able to access VASP," Sharpe said.

He thinks the VA should extend the foreclosure moratorium on VA loans, which is set to expire at the end of May, both to give the VA time to consider fixing such issues and to give mortgage companies time to gear up and reach out to homeowners.

Still, Sharpe said, for those who do qualify, the VASP rescue plan should be a big help.

"It is great news that VASP has been released," he said. "It is sorely needed because people have lacked a reasonable foreclosure alternative for a long time. ... It's exciting."

VA Undersecretary Jacobs told reporters that a key difference with the new program is that the VA will hold the loans itself, rather than simply guarantee loans that are owned by investors. That's what will allow the VA to set whatever mortgage rate it wants.

"These borrowers will have a consistent, affordable payment for the remainder of their loan at a fixed 2.5% interest rate," Jacobs said.

Back in Rosharon, Texas, Edmund Garcia is wondering what happens next.

Edmund Garcia stands with his wife, Iris Garcia, inside their home, where they live with their four daughters. Iris lost her job during the pandemic and their mortgage company offered them a forbearance.<em> </em>
/ Joseph Bui for NPR
/
Joseph Bui for NPR
Edmund Garcia stands with his wife, Iris Garcia, inside their home, where they live with their four daughters. Iris lost her job during the pandemic and their mortgage company offered them a forbearance.

"I was a little shocked to hear that I would have to qualify for this program," Garcia told NPR this week.

The VA says borrowers should work with their mortgage company and contacta VA loan technician if they need help.

In Garcia's case, he actually never accepted that more-costly loan modification. And it appears from a review of the rules that he should qualify for VASP. But there's a catch. Under the rules, he'll probably be put into a 40-year mortgage. That could end up happening to a lot of other veterans too.

"At the end I'll be 82," Garcia says. But he would still be very happy to get the help.

"This would be a huge relief for my family," Garcia says. "And it feels like it's within arm's grasp."

NPR Senior Producer Robert Benincasa contributed to this story.

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Chris Arnold
Chris Arnold is a correspondent with NPR's investigations team. His stories often focus on people who are being mistreated and need help. Recently he's been reporting on election officials and workers around the country who are being targeted with threats and harassment fueled by Donald Trump's false claims about voter fraud and rigged elections.
Quil Lawrence
Quil Lawrence is a New York-based correspondent for NPR News, covering national security, climate and veterans' issues nationwide. Previously he was NPR's Bureau Chief in Kabul and Baghdad.