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Holiday cheer: Citigroup suspends foreclosures for 30 days

NEW YORK — From a public-relations perspective, it looks ugly: On the day before Christmas a family, facing foreclosure, is thrown out on the street by its lender. So what’s a bank to do?

NEW YORK — From a public-relations perspective, it looks ugly: On the day before Christmas a family, facing foreclosure, is thrown out on the street by its lender.

In a TV news segment about the event, the network anchor reminds viewers about the bonuses that the bankers are raking in.

So what’s a bank to do?

This holiday season, some are planning to hold off on the foreclosures and evictions. Yes, Virginia, there is such a thing as a kind bank … well, at least until January.

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Starting Friday, Citigroup is giving some 4,000 homeowners 30 days without the threat of being evicted or foreclosed on. Both Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac are planning to announce a moratoriums on evictions for the holidays. Many other financial institutions are expected to follow suit in the days ahead.

The holiday goodwill comes at a time when mortgage delinquencies are at a record level and climbing. According to the Mortgage Bankers Association, the portion of loans in the foreclosure process was 4.47 percent at the end of the third quarter – up from 2.97 percent a year ago. Some 4 million homeowners are either 90 days behind on their loans or in foreclosure.

Things will get worse next year, the group projects – mainly because of the high unemployment rate.

Consumer groups applaud the eviction holiday. “It’s always a good thing to give consumers more time to get paperwork and other documentation together to present a complete and persuasive case to their lenders so they can get help,” says Douglas Robinson, a spokesman for NeighborWorks America, a Washington nonprofit that tries to encourage counseling for homeownership problems.

However, the eviction and foreclosure suspensions won’t solve the problem, these groups point out.

“It’s a nice gesture and more than that for the families facing foreclosure. But it won’t turn the economy around, and it won’t turn foreclosures around, which is what we need to do,” says John Taylor, president of the Washington-based National Community Reinvestment Coalition, which advocates fair lending and fair housing.

Some public-relations executives think the suspensions are a smart move. “After President Obama called them fat cats on ’60 Minutes,’ they have such a black eye it’s the wise thing to do this,” says Jeff Crilley of Real News Public Relations in the Dallas area. “To do it when they are not asked to do it makes them look good.”

However, Mr. Taylor says, bankers have a long way to go to resurrect their image. He recalls the classic movie “It’s a Wonderful Life” and the character of Mr. Potter, a heartless banker. “Some of these bankers are making Mr. Potter look good,” Taylor says.

Citigroup generally slows down the eviction and foreclosure process during the holidays, says Mark Rodgers, a spokesman for the financial institution.

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“It’s the right thing to do,” Mr. Rodgers says. “This is the time when there is so much anxiety. You want to give people some time to spend with their families and not think about a foreclosure or eviction hanging over their heads.”

The bank, he says, also hopes that the suspension encourages people who are behind on their payments to contact the bank or the mortgage servicer.

“We hope some people view this as extra time to see if they can work anything out,” Rodgers says. “Maybe there is a solution such as a short sale [you sell the property for less than the principal on the mortgage], or a deed in lieu [basically handing the keys to the lender, who sells the property].”