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What you need to know for 07/20/2017

Foss: Foreclosure prevention still needed

Foss: Foreclosure prevention still needed

There's a benefit to keeping homeowners in their homes
Foss: Foreclosure prevention still needed
Photographer: Shutterstock

Foreclosure seemed imminent, and DJ began packing up her house.

But then she got some very good news: Her bank had agreed to modify her mortgage. Her monthly payments would be manageable again, and she wouldn't lose her home.

It was a positive outcome for DJ - one that might not have been possible without the intervention of a housing counselor at Better Neighborhoods, Inc. in Schenectady.

"They really did go to bat for me," DJ said, when I met her for coffee last week. "They kept me calm through the whole process."

The number of new foreclosure filings each year has subsided since the Great Recession, but that doesn't mean the problem has gone away.

New York saw nearly 34,000 new foreclosure filings between October 2015 and October 2016. Approximately 72,000 foreclosure are pending in the state's courts. Foreclosures account for over one-quarter of the state Supreme Court's entire civil docket.

"We still believe we are at crisis levels," Kirsten Keefe, a senior staff attorney with the Albany-based Empire Center's Consumer Finance and Housing Unit, told me. "(The filings) are not as high as they have been, but they're still very high."

"One thing you see in the news a lot is that the number of foreclosed homes has stabilized," said Mitch Grossman, assistant director of Better Neighborhoods. "I'm sure there are areas where that is the case, but in the Capital Region, especially the cities, that doesn't necessarily hold."

Keefe, Grossman and other housing experts are pushing the state Legislature to add $30 million for foreclosure prevention services to the state budget. Right now, these programs are funded by the New York State Attorney General's office, using money from bank settlements. Without new funding, foreclosure services throughout the state will expire at the end of September.

Thirty million might sound like a lot of money, but it's money well spent.

There's a benefit to keeping homeowners in their homes. Foreclosed homes bring down property values and often become magnets for crime, which takes a toll on a community.

Housing counselors help their clients navigate a complex process, working with banks to modify mortgages or negotiate other arrangements, such as a short sale, that enable homeowners to move on with their lives. Not every homeowner, it's worth noting, can afford their home, even with a loan modification.

"A solution is not necessarily staying in your house," Grossman said.  

Last year Better Neighborhoods assisted 77 Capital Region homeowners through its foreclosure prevention services. According to Keefe, there were 382 foreclosure filings in Schenectady County in 2016.

I first spoke to Keefe in 2007, when the number of foreclosures began to surge. Back then, most of homeowners struggling to pay their bills were locked into subprime mortgages - mortgages geared toward people with shaky credit scores.

These days, homeowners fall behind on their mortgages for the most basic of reasons: a lack of money, usually caused by a personal calamity such as a job loss, divorce or unexpected medical expense.

That's what happened to DJ, a Schenectady woman in her sixties who spoke to me under the condition that I not use her whole name.

A series of job layoffs left her with a significantly reduced income. She kept up on her mortgage - "I never missed a payment" - but was unable to pay her property taxes. Her health declined, and she decided to retire. Her logic: "Nobody is getting paid if I die."

DJ said she agreed to talk to me out of a desire to help other people in her situation.

"Most people who end up in this situation don't know what to do or where to turn," she said.

Until recently, I had mostly forgotten about the foreclosure crisis.

It was only late last year, when I read an essay suggesting that former President Barack Obama failed to mitigate America's foreclosure crisis, that I began thinking about it again.

Turns out there are a still a lot of homeowners struggling to stay afloat. The state's foreclosure prevention services are still needed, and the Legislature should find a way to fund them.

Reach Gazette columnist Sara Foss at sfoss@dailygazette.net. Opinions expressed here are her own and not necessarily the newspaper’s. Her blog can be found here.

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