Working to save homes
Published: Thursday, November 1, 2007 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, October 31, 2007 at 9:10 p.m.
DENVER - It was one of Zach Urban's most trying days as a housing counselor: A woman arrived on his doorstep so distraught over the thought of losing her townhome he feared she might harm herself.
Sherie Zamora sought Urban's help when she temporarily lost her job and couldn't get relief from her mortgage company. She said Urban was calm and reassuring as they developed a plan. But as she left his office, he gave her some suicide prevention hotline numbers.
"I could laugh about this now but, at the time, it was not a laughing matter," said Zamora, 43, an insurance agent who saved her southeast Denver townhome nearly four years ago. "I was at the end of my rope and I felt hopeless.''
Urban is one of thousands of counselors at nonprofit housing agencies who preside over a court of last resort for financially troubled homeowners. It's become a more stressful job as the nation's housing slump sends caseloads skyrocketing. The demand - and the heartwrenching stories - can seem never-ending.
"There's the bad days where you've had five people come into your office that have all just broken down crying and, many times, looked to you to resolve the issues that took years and months to fall into place, and that's something that won't be solved overnight,'' said Urban, counseling program manager at Brothers Redevelopment Inc. in Denver.
"But then you turn the corner one day, working with somebody and that house is saved or that family is given a positive resolution, and those are the good days."
Homeowners of all ages and income levels have fallen into trouble over the one-two punch of a softening housing market and problems with subprime mortgages, which are made to homeowners with weak credit. Sometimes it's financial mismanagement. Other times it's a lost job, medical issues or another life-changing event.
The news isn't getting much better. Foreclosure filings nearly doubled nationwide in September, and new home sales are projected to fall 23 percent this year.
In Colorado, one of the hardest hit states, foreclosures rose 31 percent from 2005 to 2006 to a total of 28,220. They are expected to climb an additional 30 percent by the end of 2007, according to Urban.
Counselors help homeowners examine their finances, what it will take to catch up with payments, if that's feasible, and how the foreclosure process works.
They also work with lenders, often spending hours trying to reach the right representative. Urban jokes that he has passed so much time on hold he can play "name that tune" with the canned music that's played.
Officials worry counselors may quit due to burnout or better jobs just as demand is soaring, said Meg Burns, director of the single family program development office for Housing and Urban Development.
"I don't think people fully appreciate the pressure that's being put on those counselor organizations today," she said. "Everybody's pointing to counseling as...(an) end-all be-all solution to this crisis and here we have all these nonprofit organizations struggling to provide services without adequate funding.''
HUD has certified about 2,300 nonprofit agencies to offer financial housing counseling, a number that has remained fairly stable in recent years which is attributed primarily to funding constraints.
However, the number of counselors seeking foreclosure prevention training has jumped, according to NeighborWorks, a leading housing finance training organization.
It trained 143 counselors in fiscal year 2004 compared with 1,678 in fiscal 2007, and is adding more classes to help ease the burden, including a new stress management course, said Karen Hoskins, who handles its home ownership training programs.
Although there are no minimum job qualifications, most nonprofit housing agencies look for candidates who have some real estate lending experience.
Many enter the field from banking, real estate or mortgage lending companies, Hoskins said.
Urban said agencies look for applicants with a bachelor's degree and a couple of years experience in real estate lending. Salaries typically range from $30,000 a year to $50,000 a year.
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