For those fighting to keep homes, federal program, WNC agency offers options
It’s been a hard three years for Jerome and Kelli Brown.
“Just more than you think a human being should have to endure,” Kelli said, sitting beside her husband in the family room of their house in Fletcher. The house needs work, but that’s the last thing on their minds right now. Right now, they want to talk about surviving.
“Times when you think you can’t put one foot in front of the other,” Kelli said of the family’s travails. Theirs is a story pretty familiar these days, involving job loss and a house in peril. At one point, Kelli thought Jerome might die. Talking about their troubles recently, they looked tired more than anything else.
The ‘hardest hit’
The Browns have been to a scary place, well known to a lot of North Carolinians. In March, 3,698 N.C. homeowners received foreclosure notices, according to RealtyTrac, a real estate tracking company. Currently, there are 19,256 homes in foreclosure in North Carolina, according to RealtyTrak’s website.
Working to keep people like the Browns and their three children in their homes is the N.C. Foreclosure Prevention Fund, which provides assistance through the U.S. Treasury’s Hardest Hit Fund. Since its launch Dec. 1, 2010, the N.C. Foreclosure Prevention Fund has provided 6,125 homeowners with more than $48 million in assistance.
The fund helps people who have lost jobs or hours through no fault of their own, as well as those experiencing temporary financial trouble because of illness, divorce or separation. It pays the mortgage for up to 36 months or $36,000, whichever is less. It provides help while people are in school retraining for new careers.
In Western North Carolina, the fund is administered by OnTrack Financial Education & Counseling, a financial education and counseling service that serves the state’s 18 westernmost counties. As of April, the office had helped about 265 households get more than $3 million in mortgage assistance since the program launched in December 2010.
“As soon as the program was available, the floodgates opened,” said Tom Luzon, a veteran banker who directs the Foreclosure Prevention Loan Program.
He’s so busy that he’s working 50 to 55 hours a week. As tiring as that may be, he wishes more people would try for the help, especially before they get down to their last dollar. There’s no need for them to exhaust their savings – or unemployment benefits – when this help is out there, he said.
“The bank balances of a lot of our clients are what I find most disconcerting,” said Luzon, a jocular man with a thick gray beard. “You’ll have a married couple with three kids come in and their checking account has $79 in it. We see that a lot. We’ve seen single parents come in, and their balance was $19.”
Calm before the storm
Kelli and Jerome love this house, a three-bedroom rancher. It was Kelli’s first, from before they were married. She had two boys, and she and Jerome had a daughter together. Kelli chose this house 13 years ago because it had a bay window – she always wanted one. She loved the area and the neighborhood, a mix of young families and retired couples.
“Calm” is the word she uses to describe where they live.
It’s a word she holds especially dear these days.
The Browns’ trouble started three years ago when Kelli, a dental hygienist, lost her job in Asheville of 10 years. A month later, on Easter Sunday, Jerome, who worked in a grocery store, got sick from a rare bacteria. His doctor sent him to the hospital, and things got worse. Kelli was afraid he might die.
Temping for vacationing hygienists, she spent as much time as she could by his bedside. One dentist asked her if she shouldn’t spend more time there. Kelli told him she couldn’t afford to.
Five days after being admitted, Jerome was discharged. He spent the next week at home, rebuilding his strength to return to his job in the frozen foods department.
Still weak, he couldn’t work as many hours. That, of course, meant less pay.
“I felt inadequate, like I wasn’t doing what I was supposed to be doing,” Jerome said quietly. “It was very scary.”
Despite the help they got from Jerome’s coworkers and their church, they missed a payment, then another.
The bank called and wrote, threatening foreclosure. Kelli asked for a loan modification, without success.
Jerome was back to working full shifts, but he couldn’t swing the $1,069-a-month mortgage alone. Kelli, who sent out 350 resumes while looking for work, occasionally filled in for hygienists on vacation or, ironically, sick leave. Her unemployment benefits helped, but the Browns still couldn’t pay the mortgage.
One night about a year and a half ago, Jerome was watching TV when he saw a news segment about the foreclosure prevention fund. Kelli got on the Internet to do some research.
One chance, then another
Eighty-six percent of the applications the Asheville office submits are successful, Luzon said. That high rate of success reflects as much on Luzon’s office as it does the clients – the office doesn’t submit an application unless it has everything the state requires. That meant a lot of paperwork and legwork on the Browns’ part.
The Browns were approved. The fund paid the six months they were in arrears – more than $6,000 – and paid their mortgage for the next six months, until September 2011. By that time, Jerome was healthy again, and he’d moved into management, so he was making better money. Kelli had a temporary job, filling in for a hygienist who was out for maternity leave. The Browns resumed responsibility for the loan.
With the money they were able to save during the time they got help, they made the first payment in October 2011. But they fell behind again, and the letters from the bank began all over.
There were times that Kelli, sick to her stomach, grinding her teeth at night, wondered if their marriage was going to make it. She and Jerome sometimes wanted to go in different directions for solutions.
“But you have to come back together if you want to fight for the marriage and the home,” she said, tearing up. “The one thing we decided was, regardless of where we end up, we’re going to be there together. Whether it’s in a box, we’re going to be together.”
The family started looking for apartments and found that they’d pay as much to rent a three-bedroom unit as they paid for their house each month. What they could afford wouldn’t provide the room they’d need, at least not in the Fletcher area. They might have to squeeze into a two-bedroom apartment. Or move elsewhere.
“If you’re planning to move down the road and everyone’s prepared, that’s one thing,” Kelli said. “But having had it jerked away from you, that’s a loss. And that’s totally different.”
In January, Kelli has a miscarriage. She doesn’t believe it was related to the family’s mortgage troubles.
“God has a plan,” she said.
Maybe that plan included her and her husband volunteering to be a part of this news story, she said. Maybe they can help someone else.
Then, OnTrack was able to help the Browns get the loan modification they had been seeking, which dropped their payments to $862.
“Now we can make our house payments and eat,” Kelli said, laughing. “And have lights.”
Across from the sofa where the Browns sat, peeling paint on the step to the living room reflected the work that the 1,400-square-foot home could use. But if gratitude can be felt in a house, it can be felt in the Browns’ home. Despite the physical shortcomings, the Browns call it home.
“We’re tight,” Kelli said of their living conditions. “But shoot, we’re thankful.”
“There’s still a lot of work to be done on the house,” Jerome said. “But we get to keep it.”
To get help
To find out if you may qualify, call N.C. Foreclosure Prevention toll free at (888) 623-8631.
You can also learn more about the program by calling OnTrack Financial Education & Counseling at (828) 255-5166 or toll free at (800) 737-5485. WNC residents who qualify attend a 90-minute workshop at OnTrack to learn more about needed documentation.
Financial assistance through the program will be a zero-interest, deferred loan of up to $36,000 or 36 months of mortgage-related payments, according to OnTrack. At the end of the loan period, homeowners resume making mortgage payments. The loan will not have to be repaid if the owner continues to live in the home for 10 years.