Mortgage assistance program slow to start

More than a year ago, Georgia was given nearly $340 million in federal funds to help unemployed homeowners avoid foreclosure. But since HomeSafe Georgia's official launch in April 2011, the state has awarded just $23 million, helping fewer than 1,000 Georgians keep their homes.

One reason for the slow start, both critics and supporters say, is that the state hasn't done enough to market the program. And of the people who have applied, too few meet the guidelines the state established. The result is that the bulk of the money is sitting idle -- even as about 12,000 Georgians receive foreclosure notices each month.

"This is extremely disturbing ... the criteria are really strict," said Karen Brown, director of the Home Defense Program for the Atlanta Legal Aid Society. Brown criticized a stipulation that homeowners can be no more than six months behind on their mortgage payments, noting that many Georgians have been unemployed since long before the program was unveiled. "Off the bat, they’re not eligible, and that’s a serious problem."

Officials at the Georgia Department of Community Affairs frame the issue as primarily one of marketing. In their defense, they say they did meet with non-profit housing counselors and mortgage lenders early on in the initiative. They also met with the state's Department of Labor to discuss targeting the unemployed through career centers, and they have recently spoken to some media about the program.

Still, DCA Deputy Commissioner Phil Foil agrees the state should have done more, sooner.

"We are doing good things, but could be helping a lot more people," he said. "...If we had to do it over again, we'd probably look at our marketing ... and figure out how we'd get the word to unemployed folks quicker and better."

The program receives anywhere from 400 to 500 applications a month, with about a 20 percent approval rate, Foil said. He'd like to see upwards of 1,000 applicants monthly.

Later this month, the DCA will partner with U.S. Representative Hank Johnson, a Democrat, for a HomeSafe foreclosure prevention expo, officials said Wednesday. The agency is also planning a mass mailing to unemployed Georgians.

The state is also considering broadening the eligibility requirements, Foil said, changing the six-month delinquency to nine.

Georgia is one of 18 states that received funds from the U.S. Department of the Treasury's Hardest Hit Fund, a $7.6 billion-dollar program established in 2010 to help homeowners at risk of losing their homes. The federal dollars are geared toward the states with the highest levels of foreclosure -- and Georgia is No. 4.

The program, which runs through 2017, essentially provides an 18-month mortgage-payment bridge while homeowners seek new or better employment. The goal is to save 18,000 Georgians from foreclosure. So far, around 900 have been aided by the program, officials said.

Foil said part of the challenge is reaching the target audience while also warding off fraud.

"This is taxpayer dollars, so we want to make sure the people who are really qualified are the people getting the assistance," he said.

A handful of metro Atlantans who are at risk of foreclosure said Wednesday they'd never heard of the program.

Emily Siliwon, of Sugar Hill, said her family has struggled to make payments since her husband's contracting company saw business dry up. Her lender said they weren't qualified to refinance and denied a request for a loan modification. Siliwon, a mother of two, said she's surprised that the lender -- a participant in the HomeSafe Georgia program -- never told her about the option.

Scott Britt also hadn't heard of HomeSafe. His family fell behind on payments when his wife was put on bed rest during a difficult pregnancy. Britt, of Winder, has been trying for nine months to work with his lender to modify his mortgage, but he said he's still in limbo. His lender also participates in the HomeSafe Program, but did not tell him about the program, he said. Nor did he find it while searching online for assistance.

Now, after hearing about the program, Britt worries that he's ineligible -- and not just because he is now more than six months behind on payments. The program excludes people who have lost income through divorce, death of the family's primary wage earner or illness.

"Is my wife's condition considered an illness?" he asked, after reviewing the criteria.

Jean Forbes de Oliveira, of Atlanta, said she was denied assistance after three months of faxing and mailing paperwork because the state believes her home is not her primary residence. De Oliveria, who struggled to make payments after she was repeatedly laid off in recent years, said she purchased the home in 1992 and has lived there since, except for a few months when she took a job in Florida.

"I've lived there for 20 years. It’s the only house I've ever owned," she said.

Foil said Wednesday that homeowners denied assistance have the option of a second review.

Andy Schneggenburger, director of the Atlanta Housing Association of Neighborhood-based Developers, said a key issue with the program is that it's largely Internet-based. Homeowners who aren't computer-savvy are often bewildered by the requirements.

"Especially in the target audience, a lot of folks don't have access to Internet around the state," he said in an interview with Channel 2 Action News.

But for the people who have successfully navigated the process, such as Tawn Fletcher, HomeSafe Georgia has been a life-saver. Fletcher and her husband have struggled to find steady work after leaving the military, she said. They fell behind on payments to their Cobb County home and feared that they would have to uproot their 4-year-old son from the only home he has known, she said.

The program was daunting with its documentation requirements, she said, but once she was accepted, "it was a snowball process. Everything kind of clicked and it happened really quickly."

Fletcher said she is optimistic that she'll be employed and on better financial footing at the end of 18 months, when the assistance ends.

"It's been the light at the end of the tunnel," she said. "It came right on time."

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