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Even Habitat for Humanity sometimes has to foreclose

Thousands of lenders are filing foreclosure lawsuits all over the country, but this one is a little bit different: Habitat for Humanity.

The Habitat organization for East and Central Pasco had never filed a foreclosure lawsuit against a client, but this month filed two.

"It hurts inside if you have to serve them with these types of papers," said president and chief executive John Finnerty. "We're in the business of putting people into houses, not taking them out."

The Habitat organization in Hillsborough County filed three foreclosure lawsuits in July. The Pinellas organization filed one last month.

The "great recession" is hurting homeowners all over the country, so perhaps it's not surprising that even people who receive Habitat's relatively low-cost houses would feel the pinch.

But Habitat directors say there are several reasons for their foreclosure lawsuits, and some have nothing to do with the economy. They say they work hard to avoid foreclosures, and file them only as a last resort.

"We don't want that on their credit report, they don't want it on their credit report," said Brian Hastings, interim executive director of Hillsborough's Habitat for Humanity.

Hastings said the economy had affected a number of Habitat's clients.

Habitat uses volunteer workers and donated materials to build and refurbish homes for needy people, so it's not your average lender.

The clients who receive Habitat homes work on the houses themselves, putting "sweat equity" into their shelter. They receive financial and budgeting instruction before moving in. And although the program is aimed at helping needy people, clients must have enough income to pay off the home loans, often stretched over a 30-year period.

Habitat charges no interest for the loans and makes no profit. But it does expect to be paid back, because it uses the monthly proceeds to build more houses.

Like a lot of homeowners these days, Margaret L. Thornton, a school bus driver in St. Petersburg, said she fell behind on her house payments. She said this was partly because of not having much work in the summer, but she acknowledged she hadn't aggressively looked for a summer job. She said she did not blame Habitat for the foreclosure.

Barbara Inman, president and CEO of the Pinellas Habitat, said her staff would still like to work something out with Thornton. It's still possible to meet and discuss payment options, she stressed. In general, she said the staff makes several efforts to try to work out a plan before filing a foreclosure suit.

In the one other foreclosure lawsuit filed by Pinellas Habitat, in 2009, the group did work things out with the client and had the suit dismissed, she said.

Other Habitat officials said that for them, too, it's not over until it's over. The East and Central Pasco Habitat will try to keep negotiations with a client open "until five minutes before it goes before a judge," Finnerty said.

"We are not here to do anything other than to put people into simple, decent houses," Finnerty said. "That's our mission, that's what we keep our focus on, that's what we do. There are always bumps in the road."

The bumps in this case were the two foreclosure suits against clients in Dade City. In one case, he said, a husband and wife split up, which made it impossible for them to keep up with payments. In the other, he said, the homeowner had legal problems, which he did not specify, that essentially broke the basic agreement Habitat keeps with its clients.

Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report.

Even Habitat for Humanity sometimes has to foreclose 01/22/11 [Last modified: Saturday, January 22, 2011 9:28pm]

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