Counselors help when foreclosure looms

Dania Perez is with Tampa Bay Community Development Corp., which helps people in three counties buy — and keep — homes.

JIM DAMASKE | Times

Dania Perez is with Tampa Bay Community Development Corp., which helps people in three counties buy — and keep — homes.

ST. PETERSBURG

In February, when Kim Denmark finally sought foreclosure prevention counseling, she had no idea how bad things really were.

Denmark's mortgage company would not return phone calls. But she knew she was nearly $2,500 behind on $826 monthly mortgage payments on her two-bedroom home, she said.

She didn't understand the legal documents that counselors at Tampa Bay Community Development Corp. pulled from her file. But the documents showed that Denmark's one-story home on 54th Street S was scheduled to be put up for sale on Aug. 15 and that the lender had gone to court seeking $99,929 to settle her lapsed mortgage.

With an Aug. 15 sale date looming over her home, Denmark's file was brought to the top of the pile at the nonprofit Tampa Bay CDC.

Counselor Dania Perez helped her with a top-to-bottom financial assessment that included a reworking of Denmark's mortgage payment schedule and an agreement from the mortgage company to put off selling the home.

"Not knowing was the really stressful thing," Denmark, 42, said of her near-foreclosure experience. "Am I going to have my home tomorrow or will I not?"

More and more people like Denmark are seeking refuge in government-funded foreclosure prevention programs.

In August, St. Petersburg acquired $100,000 through the Pinellas County Community Housing Trust Fund to continue providing foreclosure prevention counseling through a handful of local agencies, including Tampa Bay CDC, which has been offering the service since the housing crisis began.

"Most agencies like myself are pretty much at capacity right now," said Bill Sanchez, vice president of Tampa Bay CDC, which offers counseling to residents in Pinellas, Hillsborough and Pasco counties. "We've seen quite an increase in the number of people in St. Petersburg" who are near foreclosure, he said.

In fact, according to figures provided by City Council member Karl Nurse, in August alone, nearly 2,000 homes in Pinellas — most of them in St. Petersburg — entered the first stage of foreclosure.

Joshua Johnson, director of the city's Housing & Community Development office, said Tampa Bay CDC has helped hundreds of people salvage their homes in the past several years.

Sanchez says his agency also receives money from the federal programs created to help homeowners at risk of foreclosure.

The potential rewards of sitting down with a counselor are significant.

Some mortgage holders have had their mortgage payments reduced by as much as $600 a month, Sanchez said. Others, including Denmark, have their mortgages converted to traditional 30-year loans at lower, fixed rates.

In many cases, the counselors get banks to agree to have the principal owed on a mortgage tucked into the end of the new mortgage.

In some cases, the principal owed can be dismissed with the new mortgage, Sanchez said.

For Denmark, an unexpected surgery, a leave of absence from her job as a patient care technician, and her husband's loss of his job led to financial troubles last year.

In addition to staving off the sale, the agency helped to modify her monthly payments. Her new payments are higher, at $1,000, but she's back at work now. And next February, Denmark hopes to restructure her mortgage, which will bring more affordable payments over time.

Sanchez said he and his counselors see many people who are out of work and permanently without income, making it impossible to help them refashion an alternative payment plan to stave off lenders.

Sometimes his counselors are in the position of helping people transition from homeowner to renter.

"We're not social workers. We're housing counselors. But that encompasses quite a lot," Sanchez said.

Luis Perez can be reached at lperez@sptimes.com or (727) 892-2271.

25,130

Active foreclosures in
Pinellas County

33,958

Active foreclosures in Hillsborough County

$100,000

What St. Petersburg received to continue providing foreclosure prevention counseling

>>FAST FACTS

If you're behind

These agencies are offering foreclosure prevention counseling services in Pinellas County:

Tampa Bay CDC, 2139 NE Coachman Road, Clearwater, (727) 446-6222

Neighborhood Housing Services, 1600 Dr. Martin Luther King St. S, St. Petersburg, (727) 821-6897

Catholic Charities, 1213 16th St. N, St Petersburg, (727) 893-1311

Counselors help when foreclosure looms 10/11/08 [Last modified: Tuesday, October 14, 2008 1:27pm]

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