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CAPE FEAR MEMORIAL BRIDGE CLOSURE: UPDATES, RESOURCES, AND CONTEXT

The Department of Veterans Affairs halts foreclosures after NPR investigation

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

The Department of Veterans Affairs announced last night it is halting foreclosures for six months for thousands of veterans on the verge of needlessly losing their homes. This move follows an investigation by NPR that first reported the problem a week ago. NPR's Chris Arnold reports.

CHRIS ARNOLD, BYLINE: A lot of veterans and service members'll be breathing easier this Thanksgiving. That's because many were about to lose their homes through no fault of their own. But now the VA has pulled the emergency brake, which is going to buy people some time while it rolls out a new program to help. Steve Sharpe is a senior attorney with the National Consumer Law Center.

STEVE SHARPE: Very relieved. The VA's decision to put that pause in place, give folks six months, let their program come out - it will help thousands of people.

ARNOLD: For decades, getting a VA loan has been a perk for service members and veterans to help them afford home ownership. And during the pandemic, tens of thousands of people with VA loans took what's called a COVID forbearance. That allowed them to skip six or 12 mortgage payments if they had a hardship and then just resume making the regular payment when they were back on their feet. The missed payments would be moved to the end of the loan term.

But then a year ago, the VA ended the program that let people actually do that, stranding them with bad options that many couldn't afford. They either had to pay a big lump sum to catch up or refinance at today's very high interest rates. We spoke to Becky and Ray Queen in Bartlesville, Okla., shortly after they got a foreclosure notice.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

BECKY QUEEN: My heart dropped, and, like, my hands were shaking. It was scary.

RAY QUEEN: How does that happen? This is supposed to be a program that y'all have to help people in times of crisis so you don't take their house from them.

ARNOLD: Ray Queen served in Iraq in the Army and was wounded. And he suffered brain damage from an improvised explosive device. The family has young kids. And they're not alone. Mortgage industry data shows there are 6,000 people with VA loans who took forbearances who are currently in the foreclosure process and 34,000 more who were delinquent. After NPR's stories first aired, a group of four U.S. senators fired off a letter to the VA, including Senator Jon Tester of Montana. He's chair of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee. He posted a video, too.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JON TESTER: The Biden administration needs to act now to address this crisis. Our veterans risked their lives serving our country, and they earned the home loan guaranty benefit. They're having the rug pulled out from underneath them, and that is totally unacceptable.

ARNOLD: The senators asked the VA to halt the foreclosures. And on Friday evening, the VA said it's now doing just that. This is me telling Ray and Becky Queen about it last night.

The VA's now going to stop foreclosing while they figure out this new program and get it up and running so people in your guys' situation can take advantage of it and not lose your house for no reason.

R QUEEN: That's awesome.

B QUEEN: Yay.

ARNOLD: The couple says they're still upset that they had to go through months of stress and worry and almost declared bankruptcy when they didn't do anything wrong. But...

R QUEEN: The fact that telling our story and getting some sort of justice for what's going on with our problems and everything else also helps 40,000 other veterans, that's absolutely amazing to me.

ARNOLD: The VA says any homeowner who's behind on their payments can get in touch by calling or visiting va.gov.

Chris Arnold, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

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.