Once the pinch comes, it only gets tighter

Gathering looks at how some struggle with high-interest debts

By:  Neil Downing
Providence Journal

PROVIDENCE - The Rev. Billy Ojopi and his wife, Aida, are caught in a credit squeeze.

First it was the mortgage loan on their house in Central Falls. The adjustable interest rate ratcheted upward, nearly sending them into foreclosure, Mr. Ojopi said.

Then it was skyrocketing rates on their credit cards, which boosted their payments by $1,200 a month, Mrs. Ojopi said.

They are so pinched, one of their three college-age children could not afford to buy textbooks for class - and his grades suffered as a result, Mrs. Ojopi said in Spanish, speaking through an interpreter.

"It's been difficult," Mrs. Ojopi said at a meeting in Providence yesterday, fighting back tears.

U.S. Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse organized yesterday's gathering to learn firsthand about how some Rhode Islanders are struggling with high-interest debts amid the nation's widening credit crisis.

The meeting took place at the Urban League of Rhode Island, a community group based in the city's Upper South Providence section.

The session served as a reminder of how lenders, "through mortgages and credit cards, take people who are able to pay their bills ... and make them bad credit risks" through higher rates, Whitehouse said in an interview.

"My interest is renewed" in finding ways to prevent such problems, he said.

Whitehouse is introducing legislation that would, among other things, encourage lenders to maintain reasonable interest rates and fees on consumer credit cards.

The Ojopis' problem began when they obtained a mortgage loan to buy their house. They thought that the interest rate on the loan would be fixed - and that their monthly payments would be, too.

The lender never explained that the rate was variable and could go up, said Mrs. Ojopi, 50, a salad maker at a restaurant and a mother of four children.

As time wore on, the initial interest rate of 8.5 percent jumped to 12 percent, said Mr. Ojopi, 52, pastor of Iglesia Bautista Biblica in Central Falls.

Facing foreclosure earlier this year, the couple turned to the Urban League of Rhode Island, which offers credit counseling as part of a program involving foreclosure prevention and intervention.

Through the Urban League's efforts, the couple was able to convert their adjustable-rate mortgage to a fixed-rate mortgage, charging 7.5 percent a year, Mr. Ojopi said.

But their problems did not stop there. To help pay their bills as foreclosure loomed, they turned to their credit cards, which carried initial interest rates ranging from 8 percent to 13 percent, Mr. Ojopi said in an interview after yesterday's meeting.

But because they were late on some payments, and were borrowing more on their card balances, the annual percentage rates jumped to between 23 percent and 29 percent, he said.

Their monthly credit-card payments soared as a result. "That's our hardship now," Mr. Ojopi told Whitehouse. "I am looking for a second job .... One job is not enough," he said.

Others also told Whitehouse yesterday about the problems they are encountering.

John Hagan, 52, of Providence, a behavior specialist, said he ran into trouble when his mail - including a credit card bill - was placed in the wrong mailbox.

By the time a neighbor turned over the mail to him, he had missed a credit card payment, he said.

The next month, "My bill came, my interest rate has gone up," he said.

He said he tried to explain the problem to his lender, but the lender would not budge.

The annual percentage rate on his card was 9 percent; it is now 18 percent, he said.

His minimum monthly payment was about $85; it is now more than $140.

As a consequence, he faces a decision - whether to pay the mortgage or the credit card bill each month. He cannot do both, he said. "It has become a nightmare," he said.

Many other Rhode Islanders are also struggling with credit problems and other issues amid the nation's recession, according to Norm Orodenker, chairman of the Urban League's board of directors.

"Hundreds of people need help," Orodenker said in an interview. Mortgage and credit-card problems "feed into each other," he said.

Some people borrow through their credit cards to help cover their monthly mortgage payments, he explained.

They then have trouble paying their credit card bills, and have less cash flow available to meet future mortgage payments, he said.

At the start of yesterday's meeting, Whitehouse said that food prices and fuel costs are rising, and so are the interest rates on many credit-card and home-mortgage loans.

"And we're not seeing salaries go up in the way costs are going up," Whitehouse told the group.

Interest rates on consumer loans "is an area ... that needs attention," the senator declared. Lenders are "trying to get away with too much," he told the gathering.

By backing legislation that would set a cap on credit-card interest rates, and eliminate some "particularly abusive" lending practices, Whitehouse said he also hopes to send a message to credit-card lenders to "back off" when it comes to exorbitant rates and fees. "There is such a thing as too much," he said.

Mrs. Ojopi told Whitehouse that she thanks God for having had the chance to speak up, to tell about the financial problems that have beset many Rhode Island families. She said she will keep praying for a solution. "Please give us an opportunity to keep up," she said.