A homeowner and a banker sitting down at a table — sometimes that's all it takes to stop a foreclosure lawsuit.
Now the court system for Pinellas and Pasco counties has set up a program designed to bring bankers and lenders together with certified mediators. The plan is designed to cut down on the thousands of people in danger of losing their homes.
"We have 33,000 open mortgage foreclosure cases," Pinellas-Pasco Chief Judge Thomas McGrady said Wednesday. McGrady said the cases are "having an adverse effect on our economy, on our tax base, on the conditions of our neighborhoods" and much more.
The program begins July 1 and applies to homeowners in danger of foreclosure on their primary residences who meet certain other criteria. Homeowners don't have to participate. But if they want to, their mortgage companies are required to participate, under an administrative order signed by McGrady.
All court circuits in Florida are required to set up similar programs, under a directive from the state Supreme Court.
For people with foreclosure cases filed after July 1 in Pinellas or Pasco counties on homes for which they have a homestead exemption, the program will work like this:
• A mediator will be appointed by Mediation Managers, a St. Petersburg-based nonprofit.
• The lender will be required to pay a $750 fee. If the mediation does not go in the homeowner's favor, the fee will be added to the final judgment in the foreclosure case.
• In the mediation, the lender and homeowner can talk about various alternatives to foreclosure, such as modifying the terms of the loan, or a "short sale." Financial counseling also will be offered to the homeowner.
Jack L. Townsend Sr., business manager for the mediation firm, said lenders are sometimes so overwhelmed by foreclosure cases that they can't offer this kind of individual attention. He said he believes the program could help a high percentage of homeowners who qualify.
But Matthew D. Weidner, a lawyer who defends homeowners, said it will work only if lenders make a good-faith effort to participate. He fears some lenders may simply go through the motions.
To learn more, call Mediation Managers (727) 475-4944 or go to mediationmanagersinc.com.