Faith groups offer help to homeowners in N.J.

The free service is for those facing foreclosure.

Posted: November 07, 2010

For many homeowners facing foreclosure, reaching out for help is hard. They are embarrassed and afraid.

In June, more than one in 10 New Jersey homeowners were in foreclosure or at least three months behind on mortgage payments.

Yet when state and county officials host meetings at public libraries or courthouses to discuss counseling services, a typical showing is 50 people.

When church ministers have teamed up to hold such events, however, the turnout has been dramatically different: 400 people in Pleasantville, 300 in Lindenwold, 250 in Willingboro.

With far-reaching networks effective at spreading word about assistance programs, faith-based groups are well-positioned to help in communities with high foreclosure rates, state officials say.

They offer something less tangible, too: an atmosphere that puts vulnerable homeowners at ease.

People have a "level of comfort" with religious leaders when discussing personal issues, said Jerry Keelen, director of single-family programs for the New Jersey Housing and Mortgage Finance Agency.

"Within the confines of a church sanctuary or a church basement," Keelen said, "people feel, 'Well, we're all here for the same reason.' "

Foreclosure assistance offered through churches' affiliated community-development corporations and nonprofits plays a growing role in the region. Some work with the state to organize events. Others provide direct assistance through a staff of counselors.

Since 2007, the New Jersey Housing and Mortgage Finance Agency has issued about $1.6 million in grants to faith-based agencies, many affiliated with Christian megachurches. Grantees are trained to federal standards and must serve everyone, not just their congregants.

Many of the organizations have long histories of social engagement. But their latest role is more technically challenging.

"We have to be willing to take on these tough items," said the Rev. Clarence Bulluck, executive director of the Faith Fellowship Community Development Corp. in Sayreville, which is on track to assist about 600 families facing foreclosure this year.

Bulluck's organization, affiliated with Faith Fellowship Ministries, has provided counseling to home buyers since 2001. When the housing crisis hit, that effort was refocused.

Today, the church has three full-time foreclosure counselors, 16 part-timers, and a waiting list of church members interested in helping.

Bulluck's program and the one at First Baptist Church of Lincoln Gardens in Franklin Township, Somerset County, which has served 388 families this year, are among the largest in New Jersey. Both are certified through the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Several South Jersey groups also are involved, though not all are trained through the federal program.

Abundant Life Fellowship in Delran directs people to foreclosure service providers that best fit their needs.

In Gibbsboro, four staff members at Generations Inc., an affiliate of Bethany Baptist Church, provide help for distressed homeowners up to the point of foreclosure.

Coalitions of ministers in Burlington and Atlantic Counties are working with the state to organize a counseling event in Willingboro in February and one in Pleasantville in March.

In Philadelphia, Jewish Family and Children's Service, through a grant from a family foundation, also has credit-counseling and foreclosure-prevention services.

Two years ago, the New Jersey Housing and Mortgage Finance Agency asked its outreach coordinator, Stephone Mickler, to develop faith-based partnerships.

He has no government counterpart across the Delaware River, but Brian Hudson, executive director of the Pennsylvania Housing Finance Agency, said he saw a benefit in boosting the counseling capacity of the region's faith groups. His office offers small grants and training for upstart community-development corporations.

Foreclosure aid should be a priority among faith groups, particularly those serving African Americans, said the Rev. DeForest "Buster" Soaries, pastor of First Baptist Church of Lincoln Gardens.

Soaries was featured on the recent CNN series Black in America for a campaign his church began in 2005 to promote debt-free living. Its goal is to give people financial tools and to change a culture that sees debt as the norm.

Among African Americans, debt is "a bigger challenge than racism," Soaries said. More than half the people in the black community have no bank account or have insufficient savings, he said.

Since 2007, much of his church's efforts have focused on foreclosure. Each of Soaries' sermons includes a message about managing money responsibly. He plans to go national with his program about debt-free living.

Acting on these issues returns churches to a role they played in the civil rights movement, when they focused on improving their communities and not simply on strengthening themselves, he said.

The Soltises of North Plainfield didn't know anything about Soaries' church.

Fred Soltis, 53, was laid off from his job as a lawn-sprinkler technician in November 2008. Sandi Soltis is a high school secretary.

After they cosigned a loan for a van their son needed for work, their credit was cut, Fred Soltis said. Their mortgage-interest rate, which they thought was fixed, jumped.

Despite protracted fights with their bank and credit-card companies, the couple received a foreclosure notice late last year, he said.

By the time they contacted the community-development corporation at First Baptist in January, they were sure they would have to sell their home. A counselor helped them secure a loan modification with a 2 percent interest rate and a $500 reduction in their monthly bill.

Though he wasn't drawn to the organization because it was faith-based, Soltis said it had given him more confidence in their counselor.

"You have a tendency to open up more, to go in a little deeper," he said. "You definitely feel more comfortable."

And the service was personal, he said. After the case was closed, the counselor called him about a church job fair.

A chance to offer compassion to those in need is motivation for Deborah Mitchell, 51, of South River. She is a secretary at a law firm and her extended family's financial guru. One night a week, she works as a counselor at Faith Fellowship in Sayreville.

"We consider it serving people, because that's what God would do," she said.

Advocates say faith-based organizations can lend credibility to the services they advertise. Distressed homeowners may be bombarded with offers of assistance. Avoiding scams can be difficult.

Sarah Fenner, of Plainfield, was wary in early 2009 when she heard a radio ad for First Baptist's foreclosure counseling.

Fenner, 51, and her husband had bought a two-family house in 2006 with what is referred to as a "piggyback mortgage," securing one loan to cover 80 percent of the cost of the home and another for the remainder, both with adjustable interest rates.

By 2008, she had lost one of her two jobs as a home-care provider for people with disabilities. Her husband, an ironworker, had been laid off. With their mortgage bills rising, they fell behind.

Fenner tried an assistance program but declined the help when the counselor asked for a fee.

"Why would he want money when we're having trouble?" she asked.

As at all HUD-certified offices, the help they got from the community-development corporation at First Baptist was free. It also was effective. With both Fenners employed again, the counselor helped them convince their lenders that they could afford their home.

Fenner is not a First Baptist member. Not yet.

"I'm planning on going to visit," she said.


Contact staff writer Chelsea Conaboy at 856-779-3893 or cconaboy@phillynews.com.

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