by Kathy Routliffe
A $15,070 grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development will allow Winnetka-based Open Communities to continue offering mortgage counseling to financially-strapped homeowners who find themselves facing or heading toward foreclosure, Open Communities officials said this month.
The grant was part of $42 million in housing counseling grants awarded by HUD to groups nationwide, including $890,000 to Illinois agencies, according to a June 21 HUD announcement.
Roughly 150 people a year approach Open Communities, a fair housing and community justice advocacy group, to ask for help with mortgage difficulties, according to Michael Stumpf, a housing counselor with the agency. Between 25 and 30 percent of that number eventually work with the agency over a period of months to get relief, such as mortgage loan modifications, he said.
“Sometimes people are coming to us when they’re at a place where they’re expecting to become behind (on paying their mortgage.) Sometimes they’ve just gotten a foreclosure summons, and sometimes they’ve been in foreclosure for months,” he said.
Counseling efforts include educating homeowners about their options and about fair lending regulations that can help them, he said. Open Communities can refer clients to other legal and financial resources if that becomes necessary. He can also help clients navigate court processes if their case has reached that level, Stumpf said.
“We definitely do a lot of one-on-one guidance because mortgage finances can be truly labyrinthine,” Stumpf said.
Open Communities can help clients in creative ways, such as connecting them with other clients who may need housing and who are part of the agency’s shared housing program, the group’s communications director, Jes Scheinpflug, said: “Hooking them up can give (the homeowner) the extra income they need, and the other client a home for themselves.”
People get referred to Open Communities for mortgage counseling in several ways, Stumpf said. Banks and other mortgage lending agencies will send mortgage holders who are facing difficulty to the organization, he said, while some homeowners contact it after seeing Open Communities listed as a housing counseling agency on the HUD website.
“We also do outreach in partnership with the foreclosure mediation program of the Circuit Court of Cook County,” Stumpf said. “Beyond that, we are linked up with a lot of social service agencies who send people to us.”
Open Communities’ mortgage counseling services are open to anyone in need who is able to undertake an in-person interview to start the counseling process, Stumpf said; most homeowners he works with come from Evanston, Skokie and Morton Grove, with a few from the New Trier Township area.
Roughly one-third of the organization’s clients get a trial loan modification on their mortgage as a result of its counseling help, according to information from Scheinpflug.