Economy

10,000 wait in line at Cal Expo in bid to save their homes

They came by the thousands, transforming normally festive Cal Expo into a venue emblematic of California's nightmarish housing meltdown.

An estimated 10,000 people were in line Friday morning when the Cal Expo Pavilion's doors opened on a five-day event aimed at helping distressed homeowners avoid foreclosure.

The line for the Neighborhood Assistance Corporation of America's "Save the Dream" event stretched from the Pavilion, through Cal Expo's east parking lot, onto Exposition Boulevard and nearly to Ethan Way – a distance of half a mile.

Sacramento-area homeowners stood shoulder to shoulder with those from all parts of California, Oregon, Washington, Nevada, Arizona and far beyond, hoping to have their mortgage payments lowered in order to keep their homes.

Their stories ran the gamut: underwater mortgages, unemployment, financial crises, long-missed loan payments and frustration trying to talk with lenders.

NACA officials this week wrapped up a six-day event at the Los Angeles Convention Center, where an estimated 40,000 came through the doors.

NACA CEO Bruce Marks said Friday that he expects that many at Cal Expo by closing time Tuesday.

"You'd think that the crowds would diminish by now, but they're not. They keep coming," Marks said. "This (Sacramento event) is probably going to have about as many as we had in Los Angeles."

NACA, headquartered in the Boston suburb of Jamaica Plain, will be working with homeowners around the clock through 8 p.m. Tuesday.

Its services are free, and it serves both the employed and unemployed. Options include renegotiated loans, interest rate reductions, loan principal reductions and mortgage restructuring. NACA said it has legally binding contracts with major lenders, including Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.

Employed attendees need to bring a pay stub from the past 30 days; self-employed people need to bring the past six months of bank statements. Attendees also are encouraged to bring mortgage, property tax and insurance statements.

Since Thursday morning – a full day before NACA opened doors – Cal Expo has been a scene of almost palpable desperation. Homeowners started lining up by the hundreds, armed with chairs, food, sleeping bags, blankets and layers of clothing.

By nightfall Thursday, the crowd was entrenched. Meat cooked on makeshift grills, people waited patiently in lines to use portable toilets and others dug in for a wait reminiscent of food and assistance lines seen in the Great Depression.

When doors opened at the Pavilion at 9 a.m., anticipation picked up as the line moved forward. Mothers cradled babies. Wheelchairs inched ahead as the hours passed.

Those in line had scores of stories to tell.

Paul Salcido of Fresno County was "willing to do anything I can to keep my home. I have a job. I want to pay."

Lisa Johnson, part of a contingent that made the trip from Corona, in Riverside County, said a shift in her interest rate "will make all the difference for me keeping my home."

Rhonda Smith-Welch of Sutter County said she was "just looking for someone to talk to, someone who will listen to me and not just hang up the phone."

Marks said "talking with a lender face to face is a very important part of this process. There's a big difference between trying to do something over the phone and actually sitting right here talking to your lender."

Talking to a lender was the last step in the process for the masses at Cal Expo. The Pavilion interior resembled a massive immigration center, with thousands of chairs and dozens of workstations set up.

After showing their tickets and entering the Pavilion, homeowners were seated for an orientation session. They then moved on to NACA counselors – more than 100 on-site and hundreds more on the other end of phone lines. Homeowners turned over pay stubs and other financial documents, which NACA counselors and volunteers scanned into computers. Calling up that information, counselors determined what homeowners could realistically afford to pay on their home loans.

That information was then sent to the on-site lenders. It's up to them to restructure the loan based on the homeowners' financial information.

Marks said some fortunate homeowners walk out the same day with revised, affordable loans. Not everyone does, including people who have adequate funds but are trying to drive down existing loan terms.

"We've tried to streamline the process. Actually, our ultimate goal is to put us out of business," Marks said. "But when you see these long lines of people who have had to go through so much we could probably be open 365 days, and it wouldn't be enough.

Some attendees said they felt ashamed about their predicament.

"I never in a million years thought this would happen to me," said area resident Norma Garcia. "Our family has always worked hard. Now, we're begging to stay in our home."

A Sacramento woman who politely asked not to be identified said, "The people in line have all kinds of problems that nobody thinks about. I work for the state and so does my husband, but the furloughs are killing us. I don't think people realize things like that are happening."

NACA operations at Cal Expo will be open 24 hours a day through 8 p.m. Tuesday.

To get additional information or to sign up, visit www.naca.com or call (888) 499-6222.

Marks also said homeowners can simply show up and be helped.

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