Alliances Form to Aid Struggling Homeowners
While the economy continues to recover, credit unions and counseling agencies have seen firsthand how some homeowners are still grappling with mortgage payments.
Dave Adams, president/CEO of the Michigan Credit Union League, said there is still a need for assistance.
“Credit union mortgage delinquencies jumped up 53% in the fourth quarter of 2013 after decreasing or holding steady for most of the year, likely due to economic factors like higher unemployment, the harsh winter weather we experienced and holiday spending,” Adams said.
On a positive note, home sales and prices have risen and foreclosures have dropped in many states. Lenders may be tempted to worry less about opening the mail to find a set of keys and a note saying the borrower has walked away from his or her home.
Even so, hard-hit states like Michigan and Ohio are examples of continuing problems. In 2010, both received money from the federal Emergency Economic Stabilization Act or Troubled Asset Relief Program.
In Michigan, the Homeowner Assistance Nonprofit Housing Corporation was created by the Michigan State Housing Development Authority to oversee these hardest hit funds.
The four programs bundled under Step Forward Michigan include a mortgage subsidy program for unemployed homeowners that provide payment assistance directly to the lender.
There is also a loan rescue program that helps homeowners behind on their mortgage, property taxes or both, a modification plan that can pay delinquent amounts, contribute to the unpaid principal to reduce the negative equity, or both, and a program to help homeowners with negative equity. If the lender agrees, funds can be applied to the unpaid balance to reduce the negative equity.
So far, some 72,000 people have registered for help, according to Carol Brito, program and business development manager for the Homeownership Division of the Michigan State Housing Development Authority in Lansing Charter Township, Mich. The numbers may spark concern, although there is a bit of good news, she noted.
“We haven't seen growth in the past year,” Brito said. “But we have increased our call center staff from four to 14. Communities as well as lenders and homeowners benefit because it's helping to maintain tax revenues.”
When the program started, Brito's office reached out to lenders and other partners through an e-mail that asked them to submit a request for services and become approved. There are now 350 lenders listed, including some 90 credit unions, Brito said. If a homeowner asks for help and the lender isn't listed, Step Forward Michigan will contact the lender and ask if it would like to participate.
“It's a relief to homeowners to have something they can apply for,” Brito said. “There are a lot of billboard, radio and television ads.”
Participating credit unions and other partners such as condominium homeowners associations and county treasurers can download a variety of materials including a logo, a web ad, poster, card and copy for newsletters and email.
Counseling is provided in a variety of settings through seminars, phone conversations and one-on-one meetings. Step Forward Michigan has a list of approved agencies that can work with homeowners.
The biggest problem those homeowners face is simply lack of income. Although Michigan's unemployment figures have declined, there are still significant numbers of long-term unemployed whose insurance may have long run out. There are also situations where a new job, comes with a significant cut in pay. The former income may have been adequate to handle the mortgage but the new paycheck isn't enough.
Meanwhile, Adams said Michigan credit unions are financing more mortgages for their members as well as providing more auto, student and business loans. That fills a void created when banks pulled back on lending.
Brito has some advice for credit unions who want to provide mortgage counseling to members.
“Make sure your credit union is signed up with available programs,” she urged. “If a member doesn't see you on the list, they may assume they can't get help. Be as proactive as possible. You don't have to put all the stress on your staff. Outside counseling is available.”
Patrick Harris, director of legislative affairs at the Ohio Credit Union League, said credit unions in the Buckeye State are also stepping up to assist homeowners.
“Credit unions and other institutions would rather keep a mortgage loan on the books rather than go into a default process,” Harris said. “We have heard from our credit unions that they have reworked mortgages over the past few years as members have run into difficulty. Of course, they would welcome any outside programs that are available to their members as well.”
Harris said Ohio's unemployment rate has been hovering pretty consistently at 7% to 8%. With some counties still in double digits, it's likely that some Ohioans are having a difficult time keeping up with their mortgage payments.
At the same time, the latest figures available show Ohio credit unions originated $784 million in first mortgages during the third quarter of 2013, according to league data. That was one of the highest quarters on record pushing first mortgages on credit union balance sheets up 10.6% to a total of $5.1 billion.
“Although nationally the research is saying things are getting a lot better and the job market is picking up, we’re still seeing a demand for counseling services,” said Stephanie Casey Pierce, director of homeownership preservation at the Ohio Housing Finance Agency in Columbus, Ohio. “We’re getting upward of 2,000 calls a week. Even if unemployment is going down, that doesn't reflect the people who have given up looking for a job.”
Pierce said there are also people looking for work who no longer qualify for unemployment benefits and her agency is seeing people who have gone back to work but for less pay. As of the end of January, the OHFA had provided assistance to 16,560 people with the majority receiving a combination of assistance.
“They may have been in good financial condition at the time they bought their home, but even though they’re back to work they’re no longer in such good financial shape,” Pierce said. “At the same time the need is there, funds are shrinking.”
More than 450 lenders are enrolled in the Ohio program, including 62 credit unions, according to Pierce. As in Michigan, if a homeowner contacts the agency and their lender isn't listed as a participant, the OHFA will contact the lender and can walk them through the process of enrolling.
The most common counseling venue is one-on-one provided by some 100 counselors at more than 30 agencies, Pierce said. There are also eight telephone counselors and some group sessions. Counselors find themselves assessing a variety of concerns.
“It's usually not just one issue,” she noticed. “It's a combination of a number of things that have piled up. Trying to sort through the situation is complicated. Your lifestyle may have to change because your financial situation is different than it was. There are people who can simply no longer afford their homes and the best situation for them is to exit their homes.”
Most lenders would agree it's better to work with the homeowners to come up with some sort of solution than to foreclose and put another vacant property on the market, Pierce suggested.
“Another key point is that homeowners may not understand all the jargon. People in that situation are highly stressed so it's even more difficult to grasp what may be a foreign concept to them. They may struggle with producing the documentation they need. We’re trying to simplify the process through our program and I think some lenders have tried to simplify their documentation requirements as well.”
Adams at the Michigan league applauded financial relief efforts.
“Credit unions are working hard to help their members stay current on their loans and stay in their homes.”