National

Wells Fargo mistakes cost people their homes. It was just the start of their problems

About nine years ago, a Burlington woman begged Wells Fargo to keep working with her to lower her mortgage payments. She had just lost her job, and the single mom was struggling to pay for the house she shared with her three kids.

Ultimately, the bank said no.

Her problems continued to mount. Choking back tears, Zsa Zsa Monique Conyers remembers she briefly thought about suicide, that her children would be better off without her. But she recalled thinking at the time, “I look at them in their face and be like, ‘I can’t do that. I can’t leave them like that.’”

Conyers eventually lost her home, as did hundreds of others who made similar requests to Wells Fargo. But it turns out Wells Fargo made a critical mistake when it rejected all of those requests for modifications of their mortgages.

Last year, Wells apologized and admitted it wrongly denied or failed to offer about 870 mortgage modifications between 2010 and April 2018. In approximately 545 cases, customers like Conyers lost their homes to foreclosure.

Conyers is among the people who are now speaking out publicly about what happened to them and how their lives were upended in the aftermath of Wells Fargo’s mistakes.

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Zsa Zsa Conyers, 51, poses outside her apartment with her children, Jaheim McKenney, 17, left, Jalen McKenney, 16, and Tionna McKenney, 21, right, in Greensboro. Conyers lost her Burlington home about six years ago after Wells Fargo denied a request to lower her mortgage payments. TRAVIS LONG tlong@newsobserver.com

A common banking practice, mortgage modifications involve lowering monthly payments on loans to make them more affordable and help people avoid foreclosure. For instance, a bank can reduce the payments while extending the life of the mortgage. Banks may make these changes when homeowners struggle to pay back their loans, such as after a job loss.

To be sure, the homeowners bore responsibility too because they failed to make their mortgage payments, often for years at a time. But Wells acknowledged it erred by not granting a potential lifeline with mortgage modifications for people who should have qualified for them.

San Francisco-based Wells said it has set aside $8 million to compensate customers and last year began issuing checks to homeowners. Wells, which has a large presence in Charlotte, blamed its modification mistake on faulty software that it said wrongly disqualified eligible applicants.

But some victims say the compensation doesn’t come close to atoning for the impact the foreclosures had on their lives. According to a class-action suit filed in December in California, a case which Conyers joined, the bank has sent checks ranging from $1,400 to $25,000.

Wells also offered free mediation to customers who believe the payments aren’t sufficient, bank spokesman Tom Goyda said in a statement.

“Prior to the errors, (Wells) had worked with most of these customers — in many cases for years — to delay foreclosure, offer modifications and provide other forms of payment relief,” he said. “We regret that our mistake may have denied some of them another opportunity to remain in their home.”

Conyers, 51, said the bank can’t begin to replace everything she and her children lost when they had to move out of their house and in with her mother.

“I had to get rid of a whole lot of their things that they really loved and treasured, a whole lot of things that I had worked hard in getting,” Conyers said. “We downsized a whole lot.”

‘Cry behind closed doors’

To Conyers, the four-bedroom, two-bath house she bought in 2005 was an ideal place to raise her children. “Each one of them had their own room,” she said. “They had land galore to go out there and play.”

But in 2010, Duke Energy closed a Burlington payment center where Conyers worked. Burlington is about two hours northeast of Charlotte.

When Conyers lost her job, it became hard to pay for gas much less the mortgage. “You want to cry behind closed doors, which I did so many nights and so many days,” she said.

She and her children lived in her mother’s two-bedroom home for about a year. She and her daughter slept in one room. Her two sons slept in another, and her mother slept on a pallet on the floor.

Wells had worked with Conyers for more than six years to help her keep her home, including providing one modification, said Goyda, the bank spokesman. Then the bank erroneously rejected another modification request, he said. After Conyers fell three years behind on payments, the bank had to complete a foreclosure, he said.

On average, homeowners affected by the error hadn’t made a mortgage payment in nearly a year and a half, Goyda said, and were already in the foreclosure process when the mistake occurred.

A modification would have made mortgage payments more affordable for the customers. To be sure, though, there’s no guarantee they would have continued making their payments and avoided foreclosure.

Conyers said she suffered from depression and other health problems because of her foreclosure.

“I didn’t want to do pretty much anything,” she said. “My hair started falling out. It’s to the point that you just don’t want to be around no more.”

The foreclosure damaged her credit score so much, it’s tough to find landlords who will rent to her. “I want to try to move into something better, but I know I can’t do it,” she said.

From homeowner to homeless

Dawn Van Brunt had had enough of relying on Section 8 housing, the government’s rental assistance program.

So she enrolled in a community college to become a patient care technician and got a job in a hospital. Eventually, she saved enough money to buy a three-bedroom condominium in Freehold, N.J., the first home she’d ever owned.

“It was really the first thing I ever did in my life that I was really proud of, besides my kids,” the 50-year-old said.

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Dawn Van Brunt, 50, said she lost her three-bedroom condominium in New Jersey after being turned down for a mortgage modification by Wells Fargo. Photo courtesy of Dawn Van Brunt

After she left her job in 2009 to care for her father and brother, she said she had trouble paying the mortgage on the condo. Her dad was battling pancreatic cancer, and her brother was in poor health following a brain aneurysm.

In 2012, she sought a mortgage modification with Wells but was turned down, she said. That same year, her homeowner’s association began foreclosure proceedings on the condo, shortly before Wells initiated its own foreclosure, the bank said in court filings.

During the foreclosure, Van Brunt moved in with her mother in a community for older adults. But she couldn’t stay there because of the overnight-guest policies.

Van Brunt wound up homeless and sleeping in her car for a couple nights until a friend’s mother offered to let her stay in her basement, she said. But the foreclosure’s effects continue to cause havoc for her.

Since the foreclosure, she’s had to move six times, according to a suit she filed this year against Wells. Van Brunt now lives in a one-bedroom apartment where the rent is at least $150 higher than the monthly mortgage payments on her condo, she said in court filings.

In addition, the foreclosure wrecked her credit so much that her previous employer wouldn’t rehire her, she said. That job had paid about $47,000 a year.

She now makes about $29,000 as a teacher’s assistant and tends bar in the summer and on weekends for extra income, she said. All told, Van Brunt estimates she’s lost $169,000 in wages because of the foreclosure.

Lost dreams

The foreclosure also hurt Van Brunt’s son.

Dylan Rivera, 24, said the foreclosure led him to drop out of Rutgers University. Rivera said he had to go to work to pay for school because his mother couldn’t help him financially as she went through the foreclosure. He said he dropped out because he was missing too many classes for work.

According to Van Brunt’s lawsuit, her son owes $34,000 in student loans, with no degree to show for it.

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Dawn Van Brunt, left, with her son, Dylan Rivera, and her daughter, Erica Mazza. Photo courtesy of Dawn Van Brunt

“I just wish that Wells Fargo would know that it wasn’t just the homeowners that were affected,” Rivera said. “It’s the whole family. I had to drop out of college and give up on my dream (to finish college) just so I could go to work.”

Goyda said the bank worked with Van Brunt for more than four years, including providing a modification in 2010 and other payment relief, before resorting to foreclosure. Van Brunt did not keep up with payments and the bank completed a foreclosure sale, he said.

Last year, Wells Fargo sent Van Brunt a check for $25,000. In federal court, she is seeking more than $1.1 million from Wells, including $500,000 to compensate for her health and other problems. She has suffered two major strokes and multiple minor ones since the foreclosure, according to court documents.

“Even if I got a lot of money tomorrow, I’m never going to forget everything that we had to go through,” she said.

Foreclosure of a ‘dream home’

Melissa and Stanford West hoped they could make their two-story, red-brick house in Lexington, Ky., their “dream home.”

The couple, who bought the house about 20 years ago, said they invested heavily in upgrades, including a custom-built bar in the basement.

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Melissa and Stanford West said they lost their dream home in Lexington, Ky., after Wells Fargo wrongly denied their request for a mortgage modification. Photo courtesy of Melissa West

In 2011, Stanford West lost his job with a transportation company. The couple fell behind on mortgage payments, which stressed out Melissa West, causing her to lose her job as a property manager, she said.

The mounting anxiety over the mortgage led her to move in with her sister, Melissa West said.

Stanford West said he contacted Wells in 2012 seeking a modification, but felt like the bank was giving him the runaround.

“They had me convinced I was OK, but yet I’m not getting the correct answer, still getting the letters about the foreclosure from different places,” he said.

Wells Fargo ultimately denied the modification. Melissa West said she believes the couple could have paid a modified mortgage with the unemployment payments they were receiving.

Last year, Wells sent the Wests a check for $15,000, Melissa West said. The figure is a fraction of their $100,000 down payment, Stanford West said.

The bank worked with the Wests for more than two years, Goyda said. “They were unable to keep up with their payments and we eventually foreclosed when they were more than two years behind,” he said.

The Wests said losing the home was the most stressful experience they’ve been through. In the aftermath, they also got divorced.

Last year, Stanford West filed suit against Wells in Kentucky seeking information about its modification error, said his lawyer, Marc Dann, a former Ohio state attorney general. He also represents Van Brunt.

Stanford West lost 100 pounds from the stress of the foreclosure, he said. The ordeal also took a toll on Melissa West.

At one point, she picked up and moved to Vegas for a month. Thinking about that period still makes her cry.

“Basically, I lost my mind,” she said. “I felt my whole world had just crumbled. I didn’t know what to do. I just wanted to run away from everything.”

Payment calculation questions

Customers began learning about the bank’s error around last September when Wells issued apology letters containing a check to people like the Wests, Van Brunt and Conyers.

“We’ve carefully considered what we can do for you,” the bank said in its letter, and the payment will “help make up for your financial loss.”

Victims and their attorneys, though, questioned how Wells Fargo determined how much it offered people.

The bank’s $8 million in total compensation works out to about $9,195 per customer. But the total compensation is what the bank initially set aside for victims and never was an estimate of what it expected to pay out, Goyda said. The bank has not disclosed any updated compensation figures.

“(It is) nowhere near enough to compensate them for the damage that Wells Fargo’s conduct caused them,” says a filing in the California class-action lawsuit. The amounts indicate that Wells “is unwilling to accept full responsibility for the life-altering consequences its behavior has wrought,” the filing says.

Customers who aren’t satisfied with their payments can negotiate for more, use mediation or pursue claims through other means, Goyda said.

Court filings also show Wells Fargo has sought to dismiss some lawsuits. In doing so, the bank has argued that all losses claimed by homeowners can’t be linked to its error.

‘An awful lot of money’

Not everyone believes people are getting a raw deal from Wells. Max Gardner, a Shelby attorney who has handled many consumer bankruptcy cases, said that for low-income people, receiving a $15,000 check is like hitting the Powerball.

“That’s an awful lot of money to be sending out under these circumstances,” he said. “To reach out to someone who’s not even aware that they might have a claim and all of a sudden they have a check in the mail from Wells Fargo ... that’s a pretty aggressive way to try to deal with what could be a major problem.”

But Conyers, who lost her Burlington home to foreclosure, says the bank’s compensation doesn’t go far enough to reimburse her and her children for what they endured.

Wells sent her a check last year for $14,500. Conyers said she asked for more money, and the bank sent her another check for $20,000. But she’s still not satisfied. That’s why she’s suing.

“It’s not me that just went through it,” she said. “It’s my kids who lost something that they could have called their home, something they could have passed down.”

BEHIND OUR REPORTING

Seized homes, shattered dreams

Last August, I reported that Wells Fargo disclosed it wrongly denied numerous requests to make people’s monthly mortgage payments more affordable. Hundreds of people ultimately lost their homes to foreclosure after the mistake, the bank said.

The response from readers to that story was incredible.

During that weekend, people continuously called and emailed me. Nearly all were Wells customers, and many wondered whether they were affected by the bank’s error.

I decided it was important to find some of the victims of the bank’s mistakes — and to put faces on the people who were hurt.

Here is that story. One victim is a single mom from North Carolina who lost the Burlington home where she was raising her three kids. Another is a New Jersey woman who had gotten off subsidized housing and bought a condo, only to lose it to foreclosure after Wells Fargo denied her a mortgage modification. And then there’s a Kentucky couple who lost the house they had customized to be their dream home.

Thank you for reading my work! And if you haven’t already, please subscribe to The Charlotte Observer and support my journalism.

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Deon Roberts has covered Charlotte’s financial services industry for The Charlotte Observer since 2013. His beat includes Bank of America and Wells Fargo. He attended Loyola University in New Orleans and is a native of Lafitte, La.
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