Wells Fargo Bank said it wouldn't participate in CARES Act mortgage loans in Pa. — then reversed its decision

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If you own a home in Pennsylvania and are having trouble paying your mortgage due to the pandemic, Wednesday is the deadline to apply for relief under the state’s CARES Act program, which still has millions available to distribute.

The money has been difficult to access, and some banks have refused to take on the loans.

“I was told that I was approved … and that there is one more step: my lender is yet to approve.” said Philly resident Jenny Courtney. The 72-year-old from East Mount Airy said she hasn’t gone back to her job working with school children because her age brings a high risk of COVID complications.

The Pennsylvania Mortgage Assistance Program (PMAP) was established this summer with a pot of $25 million, designated for homeowners affected by the coronavirus. By the initial Sept. 30 deadline, less than a third of the low-interest loan funding had been requested.

Gov. Wolf signed an emergency order extending the application period through Nov. 4, but did not address what critics say are systemic issues with the program.

A bipartisan bill introduced in Harrisburg this summer sought to remedy some of the problems. It would remove the requirement that applicants have to already be 30 days behind on payments, and would boost the maximum payout from $1,000 to $1,500 per month for 6 months. The legislation, sponsored respectively in the Pa. House and Senate by state Rep. Sue Helm (R-Dauphin) and state Sen. Art Haywood (D-Philadelphia), would also have made the program more appealing to banks by waiving forgiveness requirements and covering expenses.

Wells Fargo, one of the biggest lenders in the commonwealth, had flip-flopped on PMAP participation, first withdrawing and then reversing its position. Some homeowners waiting on approval are still in limbo, they told Billy Penn.

“I applied a month ago, but haven’t heard whether I’m accepted or not,” said theater artist Michelle Pauls. A recent widow, the Grays Ferry resident has no one else to help cover her mortgage payment, she said.

On Oct. 17, the Pennsylvania Housing Finance Agency (PHFA) issued a statement saying it was “reinterpreting” the original act that created program, and would implement a change to make it friendlier to lenders.

Was the change effective? Potentially. Through September, only 23 banks had dispersed PMAP funds. Since the revision, nearly 60 different lenders have participated, Wells Fargo included, according to an agency spokesperson.

“Since the change went into effect … we haven’t had any lender say they’re not participating,” the PHFA spokesperson said. “However, we know of at least a few that are still in discussion on what they’ll do.”

Even if more banks are now ready to lend, there’s still the issue of getting people to apply.

As of late October, just over half of the $25 million available PMAP funds had been requested, and only $7.4 million had been approved.

The bill with fixes to make the program more appealing to homeowners passed the Pa. House unanimously, despite a COVID outbreak among members stalling its passage. In the Pa. Senate, however, Republican leaders refused to bring their version to a vote before breaking for recess.

Asked to clarify why, Senate Majority Leader Jake Corman’s office cited changes to the program made by the PHFA and Gov. Wolf, saying they were “enough,” and calling the bill “moot.”

The legislature does not reconvene until Nov. 10, after the current PMAP application deadline.