She had seen the advertisements for the new government program offering relief. She had heard President Obama promise that help was on the way for homeowners like her, people who had lost jobs and could no longer make their mortgage payments.
But when Eileen Ulery called her mortgage company — Countrywide, now part of Bank of America — the bank did not offer to alter her mortgage. Rather, the bank tried to sell her a new loan with a slightly lower monthly payment while asking her to pay $13,000 toward the principal and a fresh $5,000 in fees.
Her problem was that she did not yet present a big enough problem to merit aid.
Yes, she was teetering toward delinquency. She was among millions of homeowners rapidly sliding toward danger for whom the Obama administration had devised an aid program — some already in foreclosure proceedings, others headed that way as they ran out of means to make their payments. But unlike those in imminent peril of losing their homes, Ms. Ulery had never missed a payment.
“I don’t know who this bailout is helping,” she said. “We’ve given these banks all this money and they’re not doing what they say they’re doing. Something’s not working right. They keep saying they’re doing all this, but we don’t see it down here at this level.”
More than three months after the Obama administration outlined a new program aimed at rescuing millions of distressed homeowners by compensating banks that modify mortgages, Ms. Ulery’s experience illustrates the mixture of confusion, frustration and limited assistance that now reigns.
Through many months of wrangling over the fate of the financial system, with hundreds of billions of taxpayer dollars dispensed on bailouts, distressed homeowners have waited for their own rescue amid talk that it was finally on the way. Modifications of so-called subprime and Alt-A mortgages — those made to people with tarnished credit — actually fell by 11 percent in May from April, according to research by Alan M. White at Valparaiso University School of Law.
A Treasury spokeswoman, Jenni Engebretsen, confirmed that homeowners like Ms. Ulery — current on their mortgages yet grappling with a hardship like unemployment — were eligible for loan modifications under the program. She said mortgage servicers had offered to modify more than 100,000 loans since the department announced the program.
But how many loans have been modified? Ms. Engebretsen declined to say, noting that the Treasury was working with mortgage companies to “fine-tune reporting systems.”
A spokesman for Bank of America Home Loans, Rick Simon, confirmed that the bank offered Ms. Ulery refinancing and not loan modification. The bank is now focusing on modifications only for those borrowers “who are already in severe threat of foreclosure,” he said.
“We’re still putting the systems in place to handle people who are current on their loans,” Mr. Simon said, declining to say how many loans Bank of America had modified. “It’s still very, very early in the program.”
Ms. Ulery, 63, is the face of the latest wave of troubled American homeowners, a surge of people in financial danger not because of reckless gambling on real estate, but because of lost income.
Far from being one of those who used easy-money loans to speculate on homes proliferating across the desert soil of greater Phoenix, she has lived in the same modest, stucco-sided condo in suburban Mesa for a dozen years. She bought the two-bedroom home in 1997 for $77,500.
For two decades, she worked as an executive assistant at nearby Arizona State University, bringing home more than $1,000 every other week — enough to pay the bills.
Round-faced, wry and given to staccato bursts of laughter, Ms. Ulery regularly visits yard sales, seeking out plates and patchwork quilts for her collections. She takes pleasure in her two grandchildren and her beagle. She enjoys an occasional glass of wine, favoring a $6 merlot that comes in a screw-top bottle.
“I’m not an extravagant-type person,” she said. “I see these big houses all around, and they’re beautiful, but I’m comfortable in my little condo.”
Like tens of millions of other American homeowners, she added to her mortgage balance as the value of her condo swelled, at one point exceeding $200,000. She refinanced to pay off some credit cards and settle into a 30-year, fixed-rate loan. Later, she took out a home equity line of credit to buy a new Hyundai. She refinanced again in 2007, borrowing $20,000, mostly for a new roof.
A good deal for the bank
Over the years, her monthly payment swelled from about $600 to more than $1,000. With planning and self-control — she tracks her monthly expenses on a color-coded spreadsheet — she always came up with the money. “I’ve never been late,” she said.
But the equation broke down last year, when she lost her job in university budget cuts. Ms. Ulery received six months of severance. She arranged a monthly $1,500 Social Security check. But when the severance ran out in October, her mortgage finally exceeded her limited means.
With so many people out of work, and with her doctor counseling rest for a stress-related illness, she did not pursue another paycheck, negotiating to have her university pension begin earlier. She has been leaning on credit cards.
Across the country, millions of homeowners in similar straits have been sliding into delinquency. Some owe more than their houses are worth.
Ms. Ulery is among that unhappy cohort — her house is worth about $122,000, and she owes $143,000 — but walking away is not for her.
“In my family, we don’t do that,” she said. “You pay your bills. And I wanted my home.”
In March, she heard about the Obama administration program. The Countrywide Web site directed her to a government site, makinghomeaffordable.gov, she said. There, she took a test to determine her eligibility for a loan modification.
Was her home her primary residence? Check. Was she having trouble paying her mortgage? Check again, and so on until the screen told her that she might qualify.
In April, she called the bank. The representative said the bank was not doing modifications for people like her, she recalled. He shifted the conversation: if she handed over $18,000, he could lower her payment to $967 from $1,046. Her interest rate would actually increase slightly, with the drop largely because she was putting down more money.
“I just laughed,” Ms. Ulery said. “It was a really good deal for them.”
To which she poses her own question: What sort of deal is it for the American taxpayer? As she sees it, the same banks that generated the mortgage crisis are now getting public money to fix it, while doing little more than seeking new fees.
“I don’t think the government gets it,” she said. “These are the same people you couldn’t trust before.”