In Vermont, the stereotype you hear about independence and self-sufficiency often holds true, says Dawn Cross, HomeOwnership Center director and the sole housing counselor at Rural Edge. As a result, the people who walk through her door needing housing help often wait until they've exhausted every possible resource. "They go into credit card debt. They empty their savings. And when people come knocking on the door to shut off the lights or take the house away, that's when they finally look for help."
Supporting counselors like Cross is one reason NeighborWorks America was charged with setting up the Housing Stability Counseling Program (HSCP), a $100 million program that NeighborWorks is implementing as part of the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021. The program is designed to support families and individuals facing foreclosure, eviction or homelessness due to pandemic-related economic fallout.
Since the program was introduced, counselors have helped 12,789 renters and another 12,435 homeowners, the vast majority – 81.8 % – from low-income households. HSCP's goal is to provide essential support to housing counseling organizations, so they can provide critical no-cost housing counseling services to the most vulnerable people facing housing instability, says Tonya Tyler, NeighborWorks' vice president of operations for National Initiatives. "Housing costs have continued to increase since 2020, which disproportionally impacts low-income and minority households and neighborhoods. Housing counseling organizations live and work in the communities they serve and are trusted partners that help move families into recovery and maintain their homes."
Cross is using funds from HSCP combined with funding from the CARES Act's Housing Stabilization Program to help those in her community. She's seen the impact – providing resources to a couple who went deep into credit card debt when they were furloughed, for instance. And she helped a man whose employer died of COVID, which led to the closing of his business.
"He hasn't been able to find a comparable job," Cross says of her client. "And he couldn't afford to make the minimum payment on his credit cards and pay his mortgage." Housing stabilization funding helped provide some breathing room while Rural Edge met with him one-on-one to provide housing counseling through HSCP. It's helping him catch up, but she worries what will happen six months down the road when inflation costs and supply chain issues compound COVID-related problems.
Counseling people during this time has made her look at things differently. "One thing I've learned from all of this is that we're all just a step away from being in a crisis. Through no fault of their own, these people have run into problems. It's not anything they did or didn't do; it's just the circumstances."
In South Florida, a Miami musician found himself without income when opportunities to perform disappeared at the beginning of the pandemic. He delayed his mortgage payments and entered a loan deferment plan, but his service provider sold his mortgage to another bank without informing him. He later learned that a foreclosure process had been initiated against him. Through HSCP, Jamie Escoto, a housing counselor from Neighborhood Housing Services of South Florida, mediated between the musician and his mortgage provider, temporarily resolving the situation.
"He's currently back on forbearance," says Escoto, who will follow up with the musician at the end of the month as they continue to work to resolve the delinquency.
In another case, a woman reached out when she was delinquent on her mortgage payment by more than $20,000 after her hours were drastically cut due to the pandemic – and due to getting COVID-19 herself. Again, through HSCP, Escoto helped with one-on-one counseling as they looked toward solutions and options, sometimes calling the mortgage servicer with the client on the phone.
Escoto has received more calls recently from people like her client who have already done "workouts" – modifications or partial claims, for instance – for COVID recovery. But they're falling behind again. "The interest rates are higher and if you've used a previous workout in the last 24 months, that has a big effect. I'm seeing a lot of repeats."
She points out that in many cases, when all else is exhausted, clients may have to find solutions like working more overtime, increasing income or finding a roommate. "Times are hard and everything's expensive. But we have to get them out of the hole." Later, she says, there could be more opportunities to refinance. She knows her clients are frustrated, but her goal is to help them through and to explain the complexities. The one-on-one counseling is essential. "It's not the end," she says. "I call it survival mode. You can save your home, but now is the time to hustle."
NeighborWorks' HSCP has resources to help both housing counselors and consumers. Check them out! To learn more about one-on-one counseling through HSCP, consumers can visit the website at stablecommunities.org.