Broke in Philly

Less than a week before deadline, Wells Fargo relents on pandemic mortgage relief

Philly homeowners were approved for CARES Act aid, only to get rejection letters from the bank — which then reversed its position (again).

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Danya Henninger / Billy Penn
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As recently as Monday, Wells Fargo wasn’t sure it would accept CARES Act money meant to cover mortgages for Pennsylvanians economically hurt by the pandemic, according to an emailed statement, leaving some Philly residents who’d received rejections on the edge of despair. On Tuesday, after mounting pressure from advocates and the press, the lender changed its mind.

“I’ve been calling them all week,” said Pam Raines, a 50-year-old costumer at the Kimmel Center who said she’s been out of work since mid-March.

“The phone line says ‘Thank you for choosing Wells Fargo,’ but I didn’t choose Wells Fargo,” Raines added. “They bought my mortgage. They chose me.”

To avoid emptying her savings, Raines applied to the Pennsylvania Mortgage Assistance Program, known as PMAP. Created after the first federal stimulus package passed in March, the program offered eligible Pa. homeowners a grant of up to $1,000 in aid for six months.

Raines’ application was approved by the state at the end of October. The money would cover more than two-thirds of the monthly payment on her South Philly home, and she breathed a small sigh of relief. But the feeling was short-lived.

A rejection letter from Wells Fargo arrived last week, she said, kicking off a new panic.

It subsided again Tuesday, when this reporter informed Raines the lender had reversed its stance.

Wells Fargo communicated its new position via email. “After additional discussions, [we] are pleased to be able accept funds from the program for all eligible homeowners that have been approved and submitted by the state,” a spokesperson wrote on Tuesday afternoon.

The bank’s flip-flop comes less than a week before PMAP’s Nov. 30 deadline, when any undistributed money from the original $25 million pot would become ineligible for relief and would instead be sent back to state coffers. Lawmakers in Harrisburg recently voted to use leftover CARES Act funds to balance the Pa. budget.

A changing position, relenting only under pressure

Wells Fargo, Philly’s largest lender, had been wary of participating in the relief program since the start. It pulled out in September, only to do a 180 and rejoin after pressure from advocates and the press.

Then on Nov. 19, it pulled another about-face, and began rescinding approvals for anyone whose mortgage was more than the grant-covered $1,000 a month.

“I have a congratulatory letter, then probably a week later they sent me a letter saying no,” said Margo Jones, 50, a furloughed flight attendant living in Northeast Philly.

Asked about the situation for homeowners like Jones, Wells Fargo initially told Billy Penn it was “hopeful that the issues preventing us from making it available for all qualified customers can be resolved.”

Only after mounting pressure and questions from groups like the Philadelphia Unemployment Project, Philadelphia Legal Assistance, Save Your Home Philly, the Pennsylvania Housing Finance Association did the bank decide to switch its policy and cover all approved homeowners.

“It’s frustrating that people were put in peril during the holiday season about whether or not they will have their homes.” said James Jackson of the Philadelphia Unemployment Project.

Confusion has plagued PMAP for months. By the initial Sept. 30 deadline to apply for relief, less than a third of the funding had been requested. Governor Tom Wolf signed an emergency order extending the application period through Nov. 4, but did not address what critics said were systemic issues with the program.

A bipartisan bill introduced in Harrisburg to address those issues was shelved by Pa. Senate Majority Leader Jake Corman, whose office said the proposed fixes were “moot.”

Yet as of Nov. 20, state records show only two-thirds of the available PMAP money, about $17 million, had been requested. Of that, $11 million had been approved, with just $5 million disbursed.

Upon learning Wells Fargo had decided to accept the funds for her mortgage, Northeast Philly’s Jones literally screamed with joy.

“I’m really happy,” Jones said. “$6,000 is a lot of money that I won’t have to owe when I go back to work.”

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