Charles Opperman, left, shown with his son Chazz and wife...

Charles Opperman, left, shown with his son Chazz and wife Liza at Chazz's boot camp graduation, was able to avoid foreclosure by selling his home.  Credit: Charles Opperman

After offering protection for homeowners for nearly two years, New York state’s moratorium on foreclosures is set to expire Saturday, and data show 14,500 Long Island borrowers are seriously behind on their mortgages. But with home prices at near-record levels, the region should be able to avoid the type of financial pain that came with the 2008 housing crisis.

The Long Island real estate market has been starved for inventory during the pandemic, with strong demand from buyers driving up prices for homes. Median home prices in Nassau and Suffolk counties hit records last summer — and remain close to those levels — and buyers have the smallest selection of homes to choose from in decades, giving a strong edge to sellers.

"It’s not going to be anything like what we saw back in the 2008–2010 period when we had a massive foreclosure crisis," said Lawrence Yun, chief economist at the National Association of Realtors. "The reasoning is that home prices have risen so much, people who need to sell, maybe they don’t have to do a foreclosure. They just do a normal sale."

Nick Sakalis, a real estate agent at Coldwell Banker American Homes in Syosset, said while there might be some homeowners in a position to pay off their debt through a sale, others who pulled money out of their homes through refinancing and home equity lines of credit may not have that option.

"This market is not going to help them," he said.

The percentage of mortgages that were at least 90 days delinquent in Nassau County was 2.06% as of Nov. 30, according to Black Knight, a Jacksonville, Florida-based mortgage technology and data company. In Suffolk, the percentage was 2.12%.

The November rates represent a marked improvement from the counties’ respective recent peaks — 6.44% on Aug. 31, 2020, in Nassau and 6.28% on July 31, 2020, in Suffolk. But 90-day delinquency rates are still more than double what they had been in the months before the start of the pandemic. The delinquency rates at the state and national level have experienced similar drops since 2020.

"If you look at the last few months, it’s all been positive," said Andy Walden, Black Knight’s vice president of enterprise research strategy, who tracks the home-loan data. The data include borrowers in forbearance plans — temporary agreements with lenders or servicers that permit a pause or reduction in payments — but not those in foreclosure or those who have made an agreement with a lender, such as a loan modification, after a forbearance period has ended.

Even if some Long Islanders are able to avoid foreclosure, forced sales could uproot families and the financial damage resulting from missed mortgage payments could make it hard to find a new place to live on Long Island.

Local housing experts advised homeowners in financial trouble to take steps immediately to contact their lender or local nonprofit agencies that have been approved by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to provide assistance.

"Everyone needs to brace for a difficult time for people," said Ian Wilder, executive director of Long Island Housing Services, a Bohemia nonprofit that assists homeowners. "I think the courts and nonprofit housing agencies will be overwhelmed."

New foreclosure cases are likely to drag on once they hit the courts, as homeowners work through options to stay in their homes, said Allison Schoenthal, a partner at law firm Goodwin Procter in Manhattan who has represented banks and lenders in foreclosure cases.

"Even if motions are filed, the courts are backlogged, it takes months, if not years to get some of those decisions from the courts," she said.

Selling to avoid foreclosure

Charles Opperman, 49, faced the prospect of foreclosure three times after buying a house in Bellmore in 2007. Opperman was able to stay in his home in the years after the financial crisis by striking agreements with his lender, including one that added a $125,000 balloon payment to the end of his loan.

His debt grew because of penalties and fees for services such as reappraisals of the home, including some which were later deemed improper. Opperman said he received a few hundred dollars when Wells Fargo Home Mortgage settled a class-action lawsuit in 2016, agreeing to pay $50 million to homeowners who it had overcharged for third-party appraisals after they defaulted on their mortgages.

If not for the start of the foreclosure moratorium in March 2020, Opperman was prepared for the bank to sell his home after falling behind on his mortgage. He had lost his job at a check-cashing service that month and was more than two years behind on mortgage payments. He said he suffers from emphysema and has a pacemaker to address a heart issue, which makes it difficult for him to work. He believes his health issues are tied to the two years he spent working in excavation at the World Trade Center after the 9/11 attacks when he was part of the Laborers' Union Local 731.

Charles Opperman's former home in Bellmore. Rising real estate prices...

Charles Opperman's former home in Bellmore. Rising real estate prices helped him to avoid foreclosure.  Credit: Graystone Properties

Opperman looked to sell his house last year ahead of the end of the moratorium as the penalties he faced increased.

He sold the house earlier this month for $636,000, and paid his lender about $544,000, including penalties and legal fees, he said. He had purchased the house in 2007 for $440,000, with a $330,000 mortgage.

"I owed them more than I borrowed, and I’ve been paying them 15 years," Opperman said.

He used the proceeds to buy a 5-acre property for $87,000 in upstate Bainbridge in Chenango County. Opperman hopes to develop the property in Bainbridge, raising chickens and crops and paying fewer bills — albeit without amenities such as a sewer system and municipal garbage pickup.

"If we weren’t in this upswing we are in, I wouldn’t have been walking away with anything," Opperman said of the real estate market.

But moving to a lower cost area isn't an option for everyone, said Sakalis, the Syosset real estate agent.

"That’s not a common situation for people who have so little equity in their home," he said. "Most people want to stay in the general area of their home, and they’re priced out."

Federal aid available

There are federal funds available for homeowners behind on their payments, but they won’t be enough to help all those in need. The $539 million Homeowner Assistance Fund, a federal program administered by the state, can help people at risk of default or foreclosure because of financial hardship related to the pandemic.

The aid is "a big drop, but it’s a drop in the bucket," said Kirstin Keefe, a senior staff attorney at the Empire Justice Center in Albany.

Applications for the assistance fund opened Jan. 3 for people who meet certain income requirements and are behind on their mortgage, property taxes, water or sewage bills. People in default on a reverse mortgage, behind on their maintenance charges in a co-op or condo, or behind on payments in a manufactured home can also apply.

The state has warned it expects to receive more requests for funding than it can fulfill and plans to review applications in the order they are received.

"I hope the federal government will see the program as successful and pour more money into it," Wilder, of Long Island Housing Services, said. "There’s no guarantee of that."

The Long Island Housing Partnership, a nonprofit in Hauppauge, hadn’t received many inquiries about the Homeowner Assistance Fund in the first week of January but expected an influx related to the end of the foreclosure moratorium. The agency can help homeowners manage the documentation needed to seek loan modifications from a bank, Peter Elkowitz, its president and CEO, said.

"It’s really important to reach out, and don’t give up," he said.

Homeowners shouldn’t assume there are no options to help them, said Tricia Gleaton, vice president of the Homeownership Center at the Community Development Corp. of Long Island, which can help homeowners apply for aid.

"When people find themselves unable to make a mortgage payment, it’s a scary time, and they're not sure where to turn," Gleaton said. "As they receive communications that might be confusing from their lender, or from the courts in some cases, it's important they try to get connected with a nonprofit organization who's a neutral third party and is there to provide assistance — or potentially get some links to pro bono legal services."

Resources for homeowners

  • Request free help from a federally certified housing counselor or attorney through the state-funded Homeowner Protection Program: 855-HOME-456 or homeownerhelpny.com.
  • Find out if you qualify and apply for aid from the Homeowner Assistance Fund: 844-77-NYHAF or nyhomeownerfund.org.
  • Find a federally approved housing counselor: bit.ly/34MFA8R.
  • Learn more about federal mortgage relief options, and find out who owns your loan: bit.ly/3FsTPMt.
  • Find out if your lender is regulated by New York State: nwsdy.li/statereg.
  • Contact your lender to discuss your hardship and learn more about your options.
  • Keep all documents proving financial hardship, and make detailed notes about phone conversations, including dates, names and extension numbers.
  • Nassau County Bar Association (516-747-4070, nassaubar.org).
  • Nassau Suffolk Law Services (516-292-8100, nslawservices.org).
  • Open all mail from lenders, courts and attorneys.
  • Beware of scams. It is free to apply for the Homeowner Assistance Fund and homeowners should be wary of anyone charging a fee to apply or promising a guarantee of funds. It is illegal to charge upfront fees for mortgage assistance, according to the attorney general’s office.

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