A South Jersey foreclosure counseling agency reluctantly closes shop

Posted: May 21, 2012

The residential mortgage-foreclosure crisis was good for business at Ahome Affordable Homes in Millville.

Make that too good: After several years of growth, the respected nonprofit agency, which had assisted at least 2,100 people facing foreclosure since 2009, laid off four counselors and several other staff members last month because its funding couldn’t keep up with the demand for services.

A change in how it was reimbursed by the state, new options for homeowners in trouble, and longer waits to resolve cases left Ahome — founded 20 years ago — unable to make payroll, says executive director Donna W. Turner, one of two remaining employees.

“We’ve lost foreclosure prevention at the worst possible time, when the need is the greatest,” says Turner, whose agency continues to offer other housing-related programs.

Ahome was assisting about 440 homeowners in the state’s seven southernmost counties when it ended its foreclosure-prevention services April 1. Clients are being referred to similar nonprofits, such as Clarifi in Cherry Hill.

The New Jersey Housing Mortgage Finance Agency “regrets Ahome’s decision to no longer participate in [our] foreclosure prevention programs,” says its spokeswoman, Lisa Ryan, in an e-mail. “All 23 of the other counseling agencies [in New Jersey] continue with the program today,” she adds, pointing out that those agencies were forced to adjust to the same changes.

Turner says she alerted the state about the cash crunch a year ago.

“We were forced to throw in the towel. We acted in good faith. We hired the staff because there is an absolute need for foreclosure prevention counseling in South Jersey.”

While some might misinterpret the word counseling as hand-holding for people who ought to help themselves, foreclosure prevention is a rigorous process that requires clients to get their financial affairs in order before it’s too late. The goal is to meet, not evade, responsibilities, and to prevent homelessness and the ripple effects of vacant houses.

“We’re not giving homeowners cash,” says Turner, a no-nonsense woman who lives in Deptford. “We’re providing them with the advice they need to preserve an asset they may have spent a lifetime” working to obtain. “We are trying to preserve home ownership.”

According to the Mortgage Bankers Association, 8.4 percent of New Jersey mortgages are in foreclosure, a percentage second only to Florida’s. While the annual number of foreclosures filed in New Jersey dropped from 66,717 in 2009 to 11,037 in 2011, the first four months of this year already have seen 7,595 filings.

“There ought to be more resources to create the infrastructure these foreclosure-prevention programs need,” says Joan Straussman, director of programs for the Housing and Community Development Network of New Jersey, of which Ahome is a member. “Foreclosure counseling is very difficult, but it can work.”

Inside Ahome’s utilitarian office in Millville, a working-class city whose gritty charms include a downtown arts district, homeowners facing foreclosure still call for appointments that are no longer available. Turner and one of her now-unemployed foreclosure-prevention specialists, Millville resident Sonya Ivanovs, tell me about success stories like George Beacham.

A truck driver, Beacham was on the verge of losing his house in Lindenwold three years ago.

“I got behind on my payments,” he says later by phone. “I made some mistakes, some bad judgments on my bills.”

Ahome counselors helped him get on a budget, and out from under a crippling interest rate. It took about a year.

“They earned my trust,” Beacham says. “Whatever they told me to do, I did it.”

Despite tales such as Beacham’s, and studies by organizations such as the Urban Land Institute that demonstrate the efficacy of counseling, political support for foreclosure prevention appears to be waning nationwide, says Karen Black, a principal in the Media firm known as May 8 Consulting, which specializes in housing, land use, and development-related issues.

“It’s almost as if elected officials have gotten bored and tired with foreclosure, and are pulling resources away when they’re needed most,” she says.

Asked if the state might reduce its funding, Ryan says the Housing Mortgage Finance Agency “has no plans ... to reduce its commitment to foreclosure counseling.”

At an estimated cost of $750 per household, such services are a relative bargain, Black says. This is particularly so when you consider the economic and social impact of actual foreclosures, which typically depress the value of nearby homes by an estimated $8,000, she adds. “Too often, government doesn’t know what to do, and just throws money at the problem. In this case, we know exactly what helps.”

Contact Kevin Riordan at 856-779-3845 or kriordan@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @inqkriordan. Read the metro columnists’ blog, “Blinq,” at www.phillynews.com/blinq.

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