When the Center for Financial Health in Michigan started, the staff spent 80% of their time assisting people facing foreclosures.
That’s now down to about 50%, as home buyer education becomes a major focus in a preventative approach to help people avoid mortgage problems. The statistics show some success. In 2012, 199 homes were saved compared to only 34 lost to bankruptcy.
The center is supported by several credit unions and the Michigan Credit Union League. At one time the center was housed at what is today Option One Credit Union, then moved to the league, but it’s now an independent 501(c) 3 organization with its own offices in Lansing.
Denise Keiser, the executive director, noted that two and a half years ago she took over from two women from Option One. The center was founded in 2005, the cusp of the housing crisis. Actually, Michigan’s economy had already been struggling even before the Great Recession hit.
Keiser stated people involved in credit unions and the housing market knew the housing market was in a bubble about to collapse. But few of the nationally known economists whose reports she followed had the courage to admit how bad the situation was.
“I think credit unions were more realistic,” he noted. “That’s one of the many reasons the center was founded.”
There was a positive aspect to Michigan being the poster child for the recession. Because the state was so hard hit, additional federal funding was available to help homeowners.
After just a year the center became one of 15 subgrantees receiving HUD funds through the National Federal of Community Development Credit Unions. The center serves not just credit union members but anyone who needs help. That includes homeowners struggling to pay their mortgage or simply eager for money management and budgeting tips.
“Just in the past year we’ve shifted gears a little bit,” Keiser explained. “Only about 50% of our clients today are looking for foreclosure help. The other 50% are anticipating home ownership and need some financial education. We have classes on topics such as money management, getting and keeping good credit, even an extreme couponing class.
“Our homebuyers’ education class is probably our most popular. We have that class every three weeks, and cut registration off at 50. That kind of education is required with certain mortgages, but we find half of the participants take the class simply because they want to learn more about becoming successful homeowners. It looks as though we’ll serve about 400 to 500 people this year just on homebuyer education.”
Adding education to foreclosure help, the center served just over 1,000 clients last year. With a staff of six, including interns and AmeriCorps volunteers, it operates on a budget just under $300,000.
If you are a homeowner facing foreclosure, the center will assist you in assessing your needs and life stage, including size and age of the household. Income documentation and budget are reviewed. Are there some benefits available in the community you may not be taking advantage of? Who holds the mortgage? Is the lender willing to modify the mortgage terms? To cut transportation expenses, is public transit to work available?
“Sometimes we find the home is no longer affordable, even if we could help the client get a modification. Then we need to have a conversation about transitioning to a more affordable home. A senior who owns a home free and clear, or has a small mortgage, may be eligible for a reverse mortgage,” Keiser said.
Quite a few clients who bought a McMansion in an upscale suburb assuming home prices would always rise have found themselves upside down. They want to learn about options. They’re reminded home ownership is an investment, and any investment carries risks. The center never advises a client to walk away from the home, but does talk about short sales–although the lender has to agree and there are tax consequences.
Services at the center are free, and that can be important. Keiser recalls a client who had already lost his home, but was still in the six-month period where under Michigan law he could redeem the home. A for-profit company approached him, said they had purchased the home and promised he could get the home back. All he needed to do was pay the company about $1,000 a month in rent. The client didn’t check to make certain the company actually owned the home. He ended up paying the company $10,000 before the redemption period was up. The center is working with HUD and the state attorney general’s office to identify such scams.
“Credit unions are the most helpful when we are negotiating to help clients stay in their homes,” Keiser said. “They are the ones who are stepping up to the plate and trying to keep clients in their homes.”
Despite the good news, funding remains a challenge. Because some of the center’s budget comes from HUD, sequestration has put that money on hold. The center has now gone five months without HUD funding.