On October 14, 2016, my neighbor received a two-page letter from the bank holding her mortgage note, M&T Bank.
As foreclosure letters go, it could have been worse, on paper. M&T told her that it was “reviewing” her “workout package.” “It is possible,” the bankers informed her, that “we may determine that additional information is needed.” “If we determine that additional information is needed,” they assured her, “you will receive a letter identifying any additional documents that you need to provide.” Footnoted at bottom in faint and fine print was an address–a P. O. Box in Baltimore–and an 800 number for “Mortgage account information.”
The decision would be reached within 30 days after the bank received all the required information. That would be–spelling this out–the decision as to whether my neighbor was being kicked out of her house, the home she has lived in for eighteen years.
The bank said that she would receive one of five possible replies. 1) Her mortgage eligible for repayment or forbearance. 2) Mortgage eligible for trial-period modification. 3) Mortgage approved for permanent modification. 4) Mortgage not eligible for modification. Or 5) “More information is needed to make our decision. You will be contacted either by phone or letter to request the additional information.”
In proof of its bona fides, M&T signed off with one of those truly personal touches that make you wonder how a bank with heart like this stays in business:
Single Point of Contact Team
Homeowner Assistance Center
The bank auctioned her house five days later. No further communication in the interim, from any person, through any medium. The letter was dated October 6; perhaps the bank docked eight days from the thirty, jumping the gun by a mere seventeen days.
The auction did not succeed. But that’s the end of the good news.
My neighbor’s house is still in the toils of the court system. In fact, it is still embroiled in two courts–only one of them legitimately involved under Maryland law.
Unfortunately, someone with connections in P. G. County had an interest in acquiring the property. Pshaw on the facts. The homeowner had cared for her mother, who died of cancer in her nineties. She had cared for her father, who died of Alzheimer’s, also in his nineties. The homeowner had lost her County job, quite possibly because of internal politics; fell behind three months on her mortgage; and has been working since 2014 to get her life back. Her house is not even underwater. No matter. The prospective buyer has all the cards–which happen in his case to include a top-tier County job as well as four adult sons and a former wife, mother of the latter, who invest in real estate via the foreclosure stream. Adiebi Hijazi, the former wife, is seen Tuesdays and Thursdays in front of the courthouse at Upper Marlboro, purchasing properties. The family has acquired quite a few houses in P. G.–all of them, as it happens, through the court of Judge Toni Clarke. “No one meets her”: the Honorable Ms. Clarke issues decisions without a hearing, from chambers, homeowner not present. The observation that “no one” meets her is not literal, be it noted. The prospective buyer of the house is present. “He goes in ex parte.”
Why is a P. G. County official pushing through foreclosures on properties he wants to buy as an investor?
The buyer is a son of Mr. Haitham Hijazi, Director of Permitting, Inspections and Enforcement for Prince George’s County, Maryland. Hijazi has gotten favorable ink in The Washington Post for his interest in cutting red tape in permits. The Department (DPIE) itself touts Mr. Hijazi’s activities in its newsletter, published at taxpayer expense. Hijazi is one of County Executive Rushern Baker’s few holdovers from the previous County administration. DPIE’s responsibilities include identifying properties that are vacant, abandoned, foreclosed or blighted. His son, Abdullah Haitham Hijazi, Esq., is the person who appears in court to represent the family interests.
Unstated in the department newsletter is the fact that Hijazi and his family themselves invest in buying up foreclosed properties. Worse yet, he and his family members actively push the foreclosures. And worst of all, they are canny enough to push them through the District Court in Hyattsville rather than through the legally mandated route through Circuit Court.
Here’s where a brutal process, grim at best, not to say heartless to the point of becoming morally repugnant, gets odd. As another Maryland judge states with laudable clearness,
” . . . all of the Judges of the District Court are aware that foreclosure matters fall within the exclusive jurisdiction of the Circuit Court.”
Question from Ms. Average Citizen: If foreclosure is exclusively the jurisdiction of the Circuit Court, then why do homeowners have to go into the District Court in Hyattsville to try to keep from losing their homes?
My neighbor has been represented by an attorney, a couple of times in the process; has received informal assistance from attorneys; and has been in touch with other homeowners in related cases. She and others in danger of losing their houses–and some who have already lost their homes–have had to show up in courtrooms in Hyattsville.
What she/they do is bounce back and forth between the District Court in Hyattsville–which, as mentioned, is not the venue for foreclosure–and the Circuit Court system in Upper Marlboro and Annapolis–which sometimes blesses the District Court foreclosures. It’s an agonizing process or game of shuttlecock, as our British cousins would say, or ping pong, where the hapless homeowner gets batted back and forth between parties with a more moneyed interest in the real property, though none of the sweat equity. First, the courtroom of Judge Crystal Mittlesteadt (Circuit Court), who denies without a hearing the homeowner’s request for a stay of proceedings. Then, the courtroom of Judge Brian Denton (Hyattsville, District Court), who at least listens to the homeowner, in appearance pro se. (In this particular matter, Judge Denton granted a continuance. That gave the prospective buyer more time but arguably gave the homeowner same. More to the point, the Hyattsville court did not have jurisdiction in the first place.) Then, another Hyattsville courtroom, where the homeowner’s continuance is denied. (“People get a continuance for missing a bus.” Again, shouldn’t have been there anyway.) In this case, denying the continuance requesnt meant that the Hyattsville judge “gave him my property.” Again, fortunately, it didn’t stick.
Imagine being in your house, living in your home, where you have lived for years, and facing the constant threat of losing the house any month. Any week. Any day. From a public policy perspective, what is the upside here?
Back to the court system, if ‘system’ is the term–
On a briefly happier note, the homeowner asked the (last) judge to reconsider, and the judge granted the request. The case then went to Hyattsville Judge Clayton Aarons, who ruled that the homeowner had to put up $7,500. A previous employer of the homeowner stepped in and put up the money. One for the good guys.
The case is now back in Circuit Court. The homeowner could not afford the constant legal help necessary to shepherd the matter through five or six courtrooms. Aside from the bank or the eager investor, who can afford such legal help? Pro bono legal work is not available for foreclosures, according to my neighbor. The University of Maryland legal clinic had a good guy available to help, and help he did. But he died in December 2016.
The interested real-estate-investor buyers in these cases have more options. They always have more cash and more financing than a homeowner in arrears, and more ability to hire legal talent.
They also have more legal talent on the bench–their bench–according to the accounts I’m hearing. In Prince George’s County, they have Judge Clarke. She “never decides for the homeowner.”
Questions emailed to County Executive Baker and DPIE Director Hijazi have not been returned.
More to come.