TOMS RIVER — Many markets have struggled since the housing bubble burst about 2006. But Ocean County has consistently ranked near the top in the state in foreclosures over the past few years.
On Saturday, U.S. Rep. Jon Runyan, R-3rd, held a housing expo at Ocean County College to help give the county’s residents a better understanding of the foreclosure process.
According to state Division of Banking and Insurance data, Ocean County has ranked in the top five in reported residential foreclosures — out of the state’s 21 counties — in every quarter since the midpoint of 2009.
There were 251 reported foreclosures in Ocean County during the first quarter of 2012, which is the county’s highest total since 2010. This was the second-highest total in the state behind Bergen and Essex counties, which both led the state with 290 foreclosures in the quarter.
Runyan said Saturday’s event was the first such expo he has held in Ocean County and only the second since taking office in 2011. Earlier this year, he held a similar expo in his home county of Burlington, where there were 176 foreclosures last quarter.
“I think one of the biggest problems with the government is people don’t know where to go to ask questions, and they end up getting frustrated when they do call for help because they end up getting the runaround,” Runyan said. “With the obvious issues people are presently facing and the foreclosure atmosphere, we wanted to do something similar to the jobs expos we hold for veterans to get everybody in the same room.”
JoAnne Iveson bought her Barnegat Township home seven years ago.
“Yep, right before the bubble went boom,” said Iveson, 47. “Now we’re quite under water.”
Iveson said the home she bought for $320,000 was valued at $240,000 during a recent market analysis, and that she has been unsuccessful at getting her mortgage lender to reduce the 6.75 percent interest rate on her home loan.
“I came here today because I’m trying to keep my current house. I’ve been told ‘no’ over the phone, but I’m hoping that I’ll have more luck here,” said Iveson, while waiting to meet with representatives from Wells Fargo. “So far everyone has been very helpful and cordial.”
Runyan said he hoped the expo would be as helpful to first-time homebuyers as it could be for people trying to keep their homes, thanks to the high number of financial experts and government agencies in attendance.
Barnegat Township residents Aquiles and Denise Valdes were not struggling with their mortgage payments like many of the others who attended the expo, but they still made the trip in hopes of lowering their interest rates.
“If you look at the interest rates, they’re so low right now. We wanted to see if there was anything we could do to get ours lowered,” said Aquiles Valdes, 58. “But we know that there are a lot of people here who are struggling, so it’s a good thing the congressman decided to hold this to try to help them out.”
Runyan blamed the county’s high rate of foreclosures on a few factors, including the overall economy, the county’s high population — it ranked sixth in population in the 2010 census — and a decline in tourism revenue to Ocean County businesses. The county’s tourism revenue has actually steadily increased over the past few years, according to county officials, from about $3.1 billion in 2009 to $3.4 billion in 2010 and then nearly $4 billion in 2011.
More than 21 percent of the county’s residents are over the age of 65 — the second-highest percentage in the state behind Cape May County’s 22 percent — but Runyan said that had little to do with its foreclosure problems.
“There are a lot of unfortunate scenarios that are playing into the situation right now,” he said. “But I think because they’re on a fixed income, seniors generally don’t overextend themselves.”
But Bayville resident Morris Bartholomew said foreclosure was not always the result of people’s overextending themselves.
“My wife and I both live off our Social Security and disability payments, but they didn’t go up for years — until this year — while the cost for everything else skyrocketed,” said Bartholomew, 55. “There’s no way we can keep paying our bills if they keep going up and our income keeps staying the same.”
Last month, Bartholomew was notified that the foreclosure process had begun on his home.
“I’m trying to keep my home, that’s why I’m here,” he said after talking to representatives from the Ocean County Office of Senior Services. “If the people I came to talk to can’t help me, maybe someone else here can.”
But it will take more than holding expos to improve the county’s housing market, Runyan said. “Obviously it’s going to take a turn in the economy for things to change,” he said.
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