A national housing counseling program designed and administered by NeighborWorks America is working to make an impact. The Housing Stability Counseling Program (HSCP) was designed to support families and individuals who are facing foreclosure, eviction or homelessness as a result of pandemic-related economic fallout. NeighborWorks America was charged with implementing the $100 million program as part of the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021.
One year in, counselors have worked with more than 17,000 homeowners and renters through the program, says Tonya Tyler, NeighborWorks America's Vice President for Operations, National Initiatives. "Families are struggling to maintain housing," she explains. "HSCP provided funding, training, peer support and other resources to housing counseling agencies that are providing no-cost services to assist families who are facing housing instability."
The impact from the pandemic is ongoing. According to recent reports, the number of borrowers past due on mortgage payments is up 55%, compared to before the pandemic. Meanwhile, more than 8 million Americans are behind on rent. HSCP provides critical resources for housing counselors to help families stabilize their housing and move forward. Through the program, counselors hope to serve an additional 63,000 homeowners and renters as moratoria end and more individuals seek help.
So far, there's been an equal split amongst homeowners and renters seeking services, Tyler says. "We know that having a stable home provides a springboard for improved outcomes that include employment, health and education. Housing counseling agencies are located in the communities they serve and can provide easy access to services and resources."
Housing counselors work to answer questions, connect residents to resources, help file for loan modifications and more. Jamie Peterson of Utah's NeighborWorks Mountain Country Home Solutions, for instance, helped a mother get a modification and lower interest rate. She also helped an oil worker who lost his job with a modification application. Both are now financially stable.
"Education is at the center of the whole thing," says Peterson, who started working as a counselor before the 2008 housing crisis. "When people go to the doctor, they need to understand medical terms. When they go to a loan servicer, they need to understand that language, too."
At Orlando Neighborhood Improvement Corp. (ONIC), counselors have seen at least 160 people so far, says Housing Counselor Ambar Velazquez. "Some of those families temporarily lost jobs. Others got sick and missed work. Catching up became difficult, be it for rental or mortgage payments." The nonprofit connected families with resources, which can be tough for some of them to access independently. Older residents and those who speak English as a second language especially needed help.
"Through HSCP, we're serving the extended community, not just ours," says Alexis Collins, ONIC's vice president for resident programs, adding that she's concerned about the rent burden many families face. A 2022 study from Harvard's Joint Center for Housing shows 53.8% of Florida renter households as cost-burdened, and 28.5 % as severely cost-burdened.
Valezquez shares the story of a single mother with four children who had fallen behind on rent after her whole family got sick. Eviction loomed. But she went through ONIC's counseling and received financial assistance, which paid off past-due rent and covered additional months. "It gave her breathing room while she worked to financially restabilize," Velazquez says. "For me, that's the clearest example of this work."
Lauren Lovett, grants administrator for Navicore Solutions, a financial counseling nonprofit, says every situation and outcome is different. HSCP allowed her organization to bring on more counselors to meet demand. Since October, they have assisted 1,000 people.
Lovett explains that even if a family is able to regain employment and income, "for people living paycheck to paycheck, once you lose it, it's really hard to get back on track." Forbearance programs helped, but many people didn't know what to do when those programs ended.
"A lot of people are in need right now," she says. Housing counselors help residents navigate the road ahead. And in turn, HSCP, supports the counselors. HSCP will continue offering no-cost counseling through 2023.
To learn more, consumers can visit the HSCP website at stablecommunities.org.