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Thousands of vets fell victim to a bait-and-switch...by the VA? Lawmakers want a fix

Edmund Garcia, an Iraq war veteran, holds the American flag over his shoulder outside his home on Thursday in Rosharon, Texas.
Joseph Bui for NPR
Edmund Garcia, an Iraq war veteran, holds the American flag over his shoulder outside his home on Thursday in Rosharon, Texas.

Lawmakers summoned the head of the Department of Veterans Affairs' loan program, John Bell, to Capitol Hill this week and asked him to explain how the VA is going to fix a debacle that's left many vets in danger of losing their homes.

His answer: They don't know yet.

"We are looking for a solution to be able to help 40,000 borrowers stave off foreclosure," Bell told them.

The VA has been scrambling since an NPR investigation revealed that it pulled the plug on a key program while thousands of vets were still in the middle of it – effectively turning a well-meaning pandemic aid effort into a bait-and-switch trap for homeowners.

At issue is what's called a COVID mortgage forbearance. Set up by Congress after the pandemic hit to help people who lost income, it gave homeowners with federally backed loans a sanctioned way to skip mortgage payments. The missed payments would get moved to the back of the loan term so when homeowners got back on their feet they could just resume their normal payments.

On the left, Iris Garcia watches her husband, Edmund Garcia, listens to a phone call from the Department of Veterans Affairs through his earpiece concerning his financial situation about his home.
/ Joseph Bui for NPR
/
Joseph Bui for NPR
On the left, Iris Garcia watches her husband, Edmund Garcia, listens to a phone call from the Department of Veterans Affairs through his earpiece concerning his financial situation about his home.

But in October 2022, the VA abruptly ended a crucial part of its forbearance program, stranding tens of thousands of vets who were told they now needed to come up with all the missed payments at once.

"I'm like, how am I gonna come up with ... almost $23,000? How am I gonna come up with that?" asks Edmund Garcia, a combat veteran who served in Iraq.

Garcia's wife lost her job during the pandemic, and when he called his loan servicer in late 2022, he was offered a forbearance. After three months, Garcia says he tried to start paying again but was told the program had ended. The mortgage company said if he couldn't afford to pay back all the missed payments in a lump sum then he couldn't resume making his regular monthly payments. So he fell further behind. Then just weeks ago he was notified that all the missed payments were now due.

Edmund Garcia, an Iraq war veteran, listens to a phone call from the VA through his earpiece concerning his financial situation about his home.
/ Joseph Bui for NPR
/
Joseph Bui for NPR
Edmund Garcia, an Iraq war veteran, listens to a phone call from the VA through his earpiece concerning his financial situation about his home.

"You know, what am I supposed to do?" Garcia said. The paperwork from his lender said he could sell his home in a short sale as one option. "I'm gonna lose my home. What am I gonna do with my kids?" he says.

After NPR first reported on the problem last November, lawmakers wrote to the VA secretary, who quickly put apause on all foreclosuresof VA loans. The delay was planned to last six months, after which the VA said it would have a solution that will allow veterans to resume an affordable mortgage payment.

In the meantime, many veterans say their loan servicers are still pushing them to either pay all the missed payments immediately or accept costly loan modifications.

Garcia is a first-generation American; his parents are from Honduras. He was the first in his family to go to college, and he said joining the military was supposed to be part of that American dream story. The VA home loan is part of the GI bill, and since the end of World War II it's been giving veterans a leg up into the middle class.

Edmund Garcia's keys hang on a Honduran Flag key holder.
/ Joseph Bui for NPR
/
Joseph Bui for NPR
Edmund Garcia's keys hang on a Honduran Flag key holder.

Garcia served four years, including combat with the Army's 101st Airborne Division in Iraq, until a bullet in the ankle ended his military career. It wasn't life threatening, but it's been a complicated injury. He's had 10 ankle surgeries in the years since, and there are still screws and plates in his foot.

"You know, aside from the chronic pain, I'm doing OK. I have my good days and I have my bad days," he says.

Garcia and his wife and four daughters live south of Houston in a house they bought with a VA home loan. Just two weeks ago he was in his car, on the phone with his mortgage company, waiting to pick up his 16-year-old daughter from school, when the company demanded full payment.

"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 says. "My daughter is in the car ... I have a panic attack right there in front of her after I hang up the phone. And she's asking, 'Dad, are you OK?' "

Photographs on Edmund Garcia's refrigerator.
/ Joseph Bui for NPR
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Joseph Bui for NPR
Photographs on Edmund Garcia's refrigerator.

Garcia says it feels like a bait-and-switch, because he and other vets were told before he took part in this forbearance program that their payments wouldn't go up.

If he can't pay back all the missed payments, he was offered a loan modification that would result in much bigger monthly bills. Garcia's old mortgage rate was 2.4%; the offer would increase that to 7.1% with payments that are $700 a month higher.

"So this is my dilemma," Garcia says he told the mortgage representative on the phone. "You guys have put a financial gun to my head saying, sign this or else."

Garcia's lender, a company called Mr. Cooper, said in a statement to NPR that it is "bound by the programs offered by VA," and that "there is currently an industry need for enhancements to VA loss mitigation solutions."

Iris and Edmund Garcia in the house they purchased with a VA home loan.
/ Joseph Bui for NPR
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Joseph Bui for NPR
Iris and Edmund Garcia in the house they purchased with a VA home loan.

Just how the VA plans to improve the options for veterans stuck in this predicament was the focus of the congressional hearing this week.

"We need answers today," said Rep. Mike Levin, a California Democrat and ranking member of the House VA subcommittee.

Rep. Mike Levin, D-Calif., arrives to the U.S. Capitol on April 20, 2023.
Tom Williams / CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images
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CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images
Rep. Mike Levin, D-Calif., arrives to the U.S. Capitol on April 20, 2023.

Bell, the head of the VA loan program, said those 40,000 veterans would get help from a new loan modification plan called the VA Servicing Purchase program or VASP.

"VASP will provide veterans with an affordable scheduled monthly mortgage payment that reduces debt owed over time at a rate much lower than the current market interest rate," Bell said.

Levin wanted to know though, aside from the thousands of vets on the verge of foreclosure and still delinquent on their loans, what about those who've already ended up in much more costly mortgages as a result of the VA's actions?

"What if the veterans already signed up for a higher interest loan modification?" Levin asked. "What are you going to do to make these veterans whole?"

Rep. Derrick Van Orden, R-Wis., leaves a meeting of the House Republican Conference in the U.S. Capitol on Nov. 14, 2023.
Tom Williams / CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images
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CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images
Rep. Derrick Van Orden, R-Wis., leaves a meeting of the House Republican Conference in the U.S. Capitol on Nov. 14, 2023.

Bell said they "possibly could" be eligible, though it was unclear whether the VA had decided if veterans would first have to default on their current mortgages.

Rep. Derrick Van Orden, a Wisconsin Republican, grew frustrated with Bell's answers.

"Mr. Bell, you didn't answer that question and you're really starting to irritate me," Van Orden said. He also expressed concerns over the possible costs and unintended consequences of the VA's new VASP program.

Also at the hearing, industry and consumer groups urged the VA to reinstate the part of the loan forbearance program that it scuttled in October 2022, which had enabled lenders to move missed payments to the end of the loan term.

"All the other federally related mortgage programs offer this option," said Edward J. DeMarco, president of the Housing Policy Council.

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

NPR correspondent Chris Arnold is based in Boston. His reports are heard regularly on NPR's award-winning newsmagazines Morning Edition, All Things Considered, and Weekend Edition. He joined NPR in 1996 and was based in San Francisco before moving to Boston in 2001.
Quil Lawrence is a New York-based correspondent for NPR News, covering veterans' issues nationwide. He won a Robert F. Kennedy Award for his coverage of American veterans and a Gracie Award for coverage of female combat veterans. In 2019 Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America honored Quil with its IAVA Salutes Award for Leadership in Journalism.