To get your mortgage modified, hit 3 –and wait

At the start of this year, when the U.S. economy seemed to be circling the drain and “green shoots” meant grass growing in the streets, everybody agreed it was essential to deal with the real estate crisis. To help people stay in their homes, the Obama administration –partly at the insistence of Oregon Sen. Jeff Merkley –pledged $75 billion for mortgage modification.

A few months later, at the other end of the pipeline, Chris Angelus, a Lake Oswego advertising agency owner caught in an industry-wide slump, began inquiring about a temporary adjustment in his mortgage payments.

“I was shipped all around Wells Fargo,” says Angelus. “Not only did no one know what the other people were doing, but I could call the same department 10 minutes later and be told that what I was just told was not the case.”

Finally, after several months, he received a proposal from the bank: He could hold his payments for September, October and November –and then make four months’ payments on Dec. 1.

“We are concerned when our customers are experiencing a financial hardship which is beyond their control,” the bank wrote warmly, “and are here to assist you through this difficult period.”

Angelus called Wells Fargo back with a simple question: How was this deal supposed to help him?

So far, the Hope for Homeowners program, launched during the Bush administration, adjusted a total of 50 homeowner loans –with a grand total of one making it through Federal Housing Authority insurance. Two programs set up during the Obama administration have reworked 420,000 loans –still dramatically less than the number of foreclosure filings.

As Merkley complained at a banking committee hearing in July, callers to his office are “complaining that every couple weeks they get a different version of the rules and the citizens can’t get through to folks who can make the modifications, and we just don’t seem to be applying the same levers of government to move quickly for our families that we have moved on with our major financial institutions.”