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Local agency trying to lend a hand to at-risk individuals


Home foreclosures are a sobering reality for some people during this period of economic turmoil, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t preventative meas­ures for at-risk individuals.

Local leaders and organiza­tions have made steps toward reassuring there is hope and there are options for people fac­ing unprecedented financial tu­mult.

The Hillsdale Community Action Agency has been offering financial literacy courses, and free one-on-one counseling for homeowners who are mired in financial crises, and the CAA just announced it is launching the Community Foreclosure Coalition: From Crisis to Op­portunity to deal with housing issues in Jackson, Lenawee and Hillsdale counties.

The Home Foreclosure Pre­vention Act, which went into ef­fect July 5, states that Michigan homeowners facing foreclosure are granted a 90-day window to stay in their house and poten­tially work out a resolution with their lender, provided they con­tact a Housing and Urban De­velopment certified (HUD) housing counselor and their bank.

The Hillsdale CAA is the only HUD certified organization in the county and Julie Laughlin, who was hired as a housing ad­vocate last September, said many of her clients never real­ized free help was available, and she’s trying to inform people on what facts lie behind the picture painted by societal stigma.

“Foreclosure can be pre­vented. A lot of people think that once they get the notice of the sheriff’s sale that there is nothing they can do,” she said. “The majority of (foreclosure) here is from job loss, reduc­tion of income and some of it medical. Just because they re­ceive unemployment does not mean their bank can’t do something for them.”

According to the Hillsdale County Register of Deeds 261 county homes were foreclosed on in 2007, 321 foreclosed in 2008 and more than 150 have been lost to date in 2009.

The number is down just slightly year-to-date com­pared to last year, but the numbers could be much higher if not for the insight and expertise of people like Laughlin.

She has worked with ser­vicers — such as banks and mortgage companies — for more than 100 clients in the past 10 months and only three of them have had their homes go into foreclosure. Laughlin and Hillsdale CAA Director Maxine Vanlerberg both said those losses were due to clients asking for help too late in the game.

“Unfortunately we get a majority that come in at the wrong point, which is kind of late in the process,” Vanlerg­berg said. “The sooner you come in the better your op­tions are. Not that we can be successful totally because there’s no guarantee of suc­cess, but you just have more options available.”

To get the ball rolling, po­tential clients need only pick up the phone or stop by the CAA office.

“They either call or walk in and I have a packet they need to fill out and documents they need to gather and I try to set up an appointment with them right then if possible,” Laugh­lin said. “The more documen­tation I have, the more firepower I have. Because the better I understand their loan and where they are in the process, the better I can help.” Laughlin said it often takes a lot for someone to admit they need help, maybe for the first time in their lives, but she wants people to know it’s OK to reach out in a time of need. Vanlerberg said she could not agree more.

“We’re in a situation now where it’s overwhelming and personally, if I were in that sit­uation, I don’t know that I would know what to do,” she said. “And knowing that we have someone who works on this stuff every day I would go to her and tell her I don’t know what to do, help me. The average person doesn’t really know how to do that.”

Laughlin said people who contact her, are on average, two to five months behind on their mortgage payments. She said some banks are letting people stay in their house as long as seven months with outstanding bills, while others are quicker to axe non-paying borrowers.

She said one thing many people going through hard­ships forget to use to their ad­vantage is a basic life essential — communication.

“They just need to answer their phone, they need to communicate, even if it’s just saying they don’t have the money today,” she said. “They need to be in contact with their servicer.”

Once a client has provided documentation and sat down and discussed the details of their situation, Laughlin con­tacts the loan provider and tries to set up an affordable solution. She will then go over what she calls a “spending­plan,” a less prohibitive­sounding term for budget.

“I don’t just educate them on foreclosures so they can just stay in their house, we do a budget, we make sugges­tions on doing this and that and contacting your credit card companies to lower your payments and interest. A lot of people don’t know you can do that,” she said.

She said she also recom­mends for people to look for bundle deals, where they can save money by grouping serv­ices such as phone service, cable television and Internet into one lower-price package. Vanlergberg said clients are made to understand that such things are good ideas, not commands or orders. Laugh­lin said she agrees with that stance.

“Sometimes when I go to training you hear people say that people should be able to cut (getting their nails done) out, but to some people that’s very important and they have to have that. But to others, yeah we can cut that out,” she said.

Vanlerberg said a recent story indicates sometimes suggestions, as well as a hard look at personal finances, can have a direct impact.

“A few weeks ago Julie had a subject come in and they looked at what they spent on smoking and that person de­cided that they needed to cut that out of their budget. They laid it out on paper and looked at what it cost them and they decided they should try to quit smoking,” she said.

“They then actually found a resource through the Ameri­can Lung Association where they sent them free patches.”

When it comes to free ma­terials, the local CAA has plenty to offer.

Vanlerberg said they are in the process of setting up more financial literacy classes in­tended to help people under­stand how to deal with smaller budgets without giv­ing up the things that matter most to them.

She said the Hillsdale CAA is hard pressed for funding right now, which they receive a lot of through grants. They are always looking for new funding strategies, but the CAA as a whole continues to make the best of the economic environment.

The Community Foreclo­sure Coalition is being headed by Community Development Consultant Neeta Delaney, who has a vision of bringing together realtors, lenders, businesses, private organiza­tions and community mem­bers to combat the ongoing challenges.

Delaney served as president and CEO of the Jackson County Community Founda­tion in the mid-90s and she recently served as an execu­tive under Gov. Jennifer Granholm, focusing on cul­tural economic development.

She said the coalition’s goal is to better coordinate services and to find ways to get specific information that will help solve problems before they reach a point of no return.

“We need hard data to help us create early warning sys­tems. If we know that 30 per­cent of a neighborhood is in danger of having trouble pay­ing their mortgage in the near future we can find ways to do something about it,” Delaney said. “That’s where we’re look­ing for funding from private sources that allows us to get the information we need in a timely manner so we can bet­ter educate the people it’s af­fecting.”

Delaney said one of the biggest obstacles with the cur­rent mortgage crisis is there are so many different reasons people are at risk.

“People heard about the sub-prime loans crisis in the media about six months ago and either think it doesn’t af­fect them or they don’t under­stand how it does,” she said. “The truth is there are proba­bly 15 different faces to this crisis and we want to show them all to the public in the coming months.”

She said she knows stories of senior citizens who have unknowingly signed over the deed to their property to predatory brokers who make false promises about how they can make money for individ­uals who are dealing with in­creased healthcare and living costs. After owning a home for years all of a sudden peo­ple are being tricked into giv­ing up their rights to something they worked hard to pay off.

Another hidden trend is renters, who are making monthly payments in full and on time, are having people show up at their door with foreclosure notices because their landlord failed to make payments.

“We need to give people good, easy to understand in­formation and compelling stories that allow people to share their experiences,” De­laney said. “It’s clear we are in a crisis, with unemployment playing a big role here in Michigan and the CAA wants to create a web of helpful re­sources to make an impact.”

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About rjwalters

I am what you think I am — a journalist. Actually when I was hired at my current job, which by the way is Sports Editor of the Hillsdale Daily News in Hillsdale, Mich., I applied for a position titled "Wordsmith", so at my best I'll call myself a writer attempting to be a wordsmith extraordinaire.

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