GWEN IFILL: But, first, years into the economic recovery, some homeowners are still struggling to hang on to their homes. The headlines tell of strong home sales in many major metropolitan areas, even in cities where sales prices have been shooting skyward.
But there's another part of the housing story, the places and homeowners who have yet to recover, even as prices have remained low.
Economics correspondent Paul Solman has that report, part of our weekly series Making Sense, which airs every Thursday on the NewsHour.
DANTE ORTIZ: Go, go, go, go. You all right?
PAUL SOLMAN: Cheryl and Dante Ortiz are living proof that the housing crisis is still with us. When they bought their Southbridge, Massachusetts, home in 2004 for their large family, half of the kids adopted, they thought they'd found their slice of the American pie.
CHERYL ORTIZ: I got you. I got you. Come on.
PAUL SOLMAN: But six years later, it looked like they would lose it. Donte ruptured a disk in his back at work and became disabled. Cheryl's grad school student loans came due. They fell behind on the house payments. But since the value of their house had plummeted, and in their neighborhood had never recovered, even refinancing wasn't an option.
CHERYL ORTIZ, Homeowner: The mortgage company had no compassion. They wanted to do nothing to help us, nothing. And I finally said to them, I don't know what you want me to do. I'm explaining to you my situation. You don't — it's like you don't care. And they said, well, it's your problem. Put the house up for sale.
PAUL SOLMAN: Which they did, in what's known as a short sale, where the seller's asking price doesn't cover what's owed to the bank.
Now, what had you paid for it initially?
CHERYL ORTIZ: Initially, $250,000.
PAUL SOLMAN: And what were you short-selling it at?
CHERYL ORTIZ: They brought it down to as low as $149,000. And not one person came to look at it, no offers, nothing.
PAUL SOLMAN: After six months, they pulled the house off the market.
So, you mean there's been no housing rebound at all around here?
CHERYL ORTIZ: No, no, not here.
PAUL SOLMAN: But the news is that, nationally, housing prices are on the way back up.
CHERYL ORTIZ: Well, maybe somebody should show me where that is, because it hasn't happened here.
PAUL SOLMAN: Elyse Cherry, who runs Boston Community Capital, a nonprofit lender that specializes in helping underwater homeowners, says this story is still a common place.
ELYSE CHERRY, CEO Boston Community Capital: This is the story of a crisis that won't quit, and it won't quit because we're not focused on the difference in how it impacts our lower-income neighbors, as opposed to our middle- and upper-middle-income neighbors. In low-income areas, the foreclosure crisis continues unabated.
PAUL SOLMAN: Really? Unabated?
ELYSE CHERRY: Unabated.
PAUL SOLMAN: According to the research real estate firm Zillow, more than seven million borrowers remained underwater in June of 2015, over half of them by more than 20 percent, with homes in low-end neighborhoods more than three times as likely to be underwater.
And this tale of two markets is playing out across the greater Boston area. David Greenidge, a research data management specialist, paid $250,000 in 2006 for his house in the modest, but well-tended town of Fitchburg, Massachusetts, then found it had soon lost about $100,000 in value. After being between jobs for several months, he too fell behind, tried to refinance, and got the run-around we have been reporting for years now.
DAVID GREENIDGE, Homeowner: They initially said, you know, let's try to do a modification. OK, fine. I sent them the paperwork, like 60 some-odd pages, all our information. A month — about a month later, can you send us all the information to do the modification? OK. I sent it to them again and said, I just sent you this a month ago.
PAUL SOLMAN: OK, maybe the banks were overwhelmed by the volume of business, but like Greenidge, Cheryl Ortiz wondered, why wouldn't the banks make a deal with homeowners at something like market rates?
CHERYL ORTIZ: What do you think is going to happen to my house if you take it? What is that going to help you as the bank? You're going to lose more. But, no, I'm out, you know, got to go, you're out of the house, and we're going to give it to somebody else much cheaper.
PAUL SOLMAN: Nic Retsinas, who teaches real estate at Harvard Business School, says the banks don't necessarily want to work things out.
NIC RETSINAS, Harvard Business School: Because the banks necessarily aren't holding these mortgages. They're often bundle-izing them and securitizing them and selling them to investors. Investors are very nervous about losing any of their principal. They feel that's inviolate. As a result, they haven't done a principal reduction. As a result, you have these low values, particularly among low-end homes, continue to stilt the marketplace.
PAUL SOLMAN: So the bank is simply afraid of setting a precedent?
NIC RETSINAS: Yes, the banks think this will be contagious, and then they will lose their investor base, who is very concerned about ever losing their principal.
PAUL SOLMAN: So, are you sympathetic to the lenders for not giving the homeowner the same deal that is actually a price on the open market?
NIC RETSINAS: No, I think the lenders have been short-sighted. And because they have been short-sighted, for the most part, this housing crisis has dragged on and on, and it explains why the recovery is so slow and so laborious.
PAUL SOLMAN: This is where Elyse Cherry and Boston Community Capital come in. For the past six years, the organization's Stabilizing Urban Neighborhoods program has refinanced some $85 million in home loans for people in default and foreclosure.
PAUL SOLMAN: What you do is, you buy the home at the current market price, which is lower than the original one, and then sell it back to the owner.
ELYSE CHERRY: That's correct.
PAUL SOLMAN: And that works?
ELYSE CHERRY: Yes. We provide a new 30-year fixed year mortgage. We have some bells and whistles attached to this to be sure that we really get good homeowners.
PAUL SOLMAN: Boston Community Capital charges those homeowners a interest rate than the banks and shares in any appreciation of the home for as long as the loan stays in force. As a result, says Cherry:
ELYSE CHERRY: We encourage people to clean up their credit as quickly as possible, so that they can, in fact, go out and get perhaps a cheaper mortgage, take our mortgage out, and cut off any shared appreciation as early as they can.
PAUL SOLMAN: Something the Ortizes are already making plans to do.
CHERYL ORTIZ: Now I'm in a position to say, OK, now I can start looking for — to refinance. And I'm not going to have somebody say, oh, you can't do that because you're so far underwater, you will — nobody is going to touch you.
PAUL SOLMAN: One of the bells and whistles that comes with the Community Capital mortgage is a biweekly payment regiment, requiring borrowers to make 26 half-payments a year, two more than needed to cover their annual obligation.
The extra two goes into a fund…
DAVID GREENIDGE: Exactly.
PAUL SOLMAN: … as a cushion.
DAVID GREENIDGE: Exactly.
PAUL SOLMAN: Have you had the use the cushion?
DAVID GREENIDGE: No, but we may need to because our furnace is very old. When the repairman came, he noticed that we have some pipe issues. The plumber said, don't touch it, so your finger might literally go through. I'm going to submit the estimate to fix that with Boston Community Capital.
PAUL SOLMAN: So, is a program like this the answer for a large part of the housing market that's still reeling? Elyse Cherry herself says no. For one thing, not everyone qualifies.
ELYSE CHERRY: You really have to have enough current income to support even a current-priced mortgage.
PAUL SOLMAN: And Nic Retsinas sees another limitation.
NIC RETSINAS: They don't really have the capacity to do this in large numbers sort of over time. They're doing it in selected markets. They're still running into hurdles. They still need the cooperation of banks. So, yes, it's a great idea. It makes a lot of sense. Whether it can get to a scale to make a difference, I'm not so sure.
PAUL SOLMAN: But, for Cheryl Ortiz, at least, it's given her family room to breathe.
CHERYL ORTIZ: We have a good place to live. My kids have their friends. And, you know, we hope that, little by little, things turn around, but at least I can say I'm not afraid for tomorrow, because, you know, we can make — right now, we're making it. We're doing well.
PAUL SOLMAN: For the moment. And in the tale of two markets, that's more than millions of still-underwater homeowners can say.
From parts of the Boston area that still haven't recovered from the housing crisis, this is economics correspondent Paul Solman reporting for the PBS NewsHour.