OCEAN SPRINGS, Miss. – Like many homeowners around here, Janet Kisling owes a pile of debt on little more than a pile of debris. She has a $1,000-a-month mortgage on a home that is uninhabitable.
For her and others along the Gulf Coast, December brings a cruel cutoff: It marks the end of an informal 90-day grace period that many lenders offered to Hurricane Katrina victims that let them put their mortgage payments on hold.
That means Kisling, a self-employed wardrobe consultant who sells clothing to wealthy women across the country who are too busy to shop, will have to start making payments again on Dec. 15.
“I lost my business. I lost all my merchandise. I’m way behind the eight ball,” said Kisling, who is sleeping in a trailer and waiting for her flood insurance money to come through so she can rebuild her home.
Hers is a tale of woe that stretches across the Gulf Coast, from Pascagoula on the Alabama line through this artsy village on the edge of Biloxi Bay, to New Orleans and west across Louisiana.
Banks and lenders cannot forgive loans entirely without risking the stability of their institutions. Some homeowners will have to pay off debt for years, whether they rebuild or move away; others will be forced to declare bankruptcy.
The scope of the problem is unclear three months after Katrina came ashore Aug. 29.
“How many fit into that category, we don’t really know,” said Chevis Swetman, president and chief executive of Peoples Bank of Biloxi, a $720 million bank that lost several of its branches to wind and floodwaters. He is planning to write off $5 million in losses, but said that is just a guess.
In Pass Christian, where the floods left block after block of tumbled-down trees and upended homes, Philip LaGrange warned: “This month will be a major turning point for most Katrina victims.”
“They’ve been sheltered with no mortgage payments for three months,” said LaGrange, who is trying to rebuild his 160-year-old bed-and-breakfast. “Now, as a December Christmas gift, mortgage payments are due.”
Willie Smith, a 58-year-old funeral home manager in Pascagoula, has to dig himself out of debt before he can begin to think about starting over. He and his wife had less than six years of mortgage payments left on their home when the storm came. The waters rose nearly 6 feet up the walls, ruining nearly everything. He had no flood insurance because his home was not in a federal flood zone.
Smith’s insurance company sent him $1,000 upfront on his homeowner policy. A month after the storm, an adjuster came and concluded that nearly all the damage was from the flood, not the storm, so his policy did not cover it. It covered just under $1,000, meaning Smith owed his insurer $28.97.
But his big worry is the $28,000 left on the mortgage. He and his wife hope to pay their bills and save what they can to rebuild. He can do some work himself. His brother-in-law will help him do electrical work; a volunteer group in Texas has promised to help put up wallboard once he gets new siding, a new roof and power.
“I told my wife, every payday we’ll buy a little bit more. It’ll take us a couple of years to put it back together,” Smith said. “We have no choice. That’s life.”
Bankers across the region say they will try to show some flexibility, but they have obligations to stockholders and banking regulators.
After Katrina, regulators recommended that lenders give homeowners a grace period on their mortgage payments. Most provided 90 days, according to the Federal Financial Institutions Examination Council in Virginia.
O. Bruce Coffman, president of the Louisiana Mortgage Lenders Association, said the industry is not eager to see a lot of foreclosures.
“We’re not in the real estate business,” he said. “They certainly don’t want to own property that’s been virtually destroyed. So I don’t look for the mortgage services industry to pull out the knives this month.”
With the grace period coming to an end, most mortgage companies and banks do not plan to force homeowners to pay everything back at once, Coffman said. Companies will spread the amount over several months: If your mortgage payment is $1,000 a month and you took advantage of the three-month grace period beginning in September, in December you would owe $4,000. But the back payment of $3,000 could be spread out over nine months, so your new monthly payment would be about $1,333.
In cases where homeowners cannot afford to spread out the three payments, mortgage companies will try to work something out, Coffman said.
Mac Deaver, president of the Mississippi Bankers Association, said banks must help homeowners where they can.
“If the community can’t work, can’t get the wherewithal to be employed, make money, make payments, then the banks can’t survive. They’re all in this together,” Deaver said. “It’s an economic engine that has to work together.”