Hope Now faces big challenges
Mortgage counseling is a key leg of the foreclosure prevention plan, but services are already stretched.
NEW YORK (Money) -- A key component of the Bush Administration's plan to help troubled homeowners is already under pressure: finding qualified counselers.
U.S. Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson has pointed to the Hope Now Alliance - a coalition of nonprofits, lenders, and investors - as a focal point of the Administration's plan to prevent millions of foreclosures.
The Alliance has a hotline (1-888-995-HOPE), in place since 2004, where homeowners can get over-the-phone foreclosure-prevention counseling.
But before the number became the main go-to for the Alliance, calls into the HOPE hotline had already skyrocketed.
According to the Homeownership Preservation Foundation, which runs the hotline, the number of calls to the center has nearly doubled in each of the past two quarters.
In June 2006, the foundation recorded about 100 calls per day. In June of this year, that number had risen to 1,200 per day. Now, the center handles about 1,500 a day with bumps of up to 3,000 per day after major media coverage. Those numbers only include first-time callers. Many homeowners require several calls to get complete counseling.
The Homeownership Preservation Foundation has almost tripled the number of counselors it has staffing the lines since the beginning of the year, to 180.
"There's just too much demand and too few skilled housing counselors," said Rick Harper, director of housing for the Consumer Credit Counseling Service of San Francisco. The counseling service is one of six organizations nationwide that handle calls from the hotline. "When people are in crisis, you need to be there to pick up the phone the first time, because they might not come back again," he said.
Harper's organization has seen the number of counseling requests it gets more than quadruple in the past six months.
If a phone consultation isn't sufficient, callers are referred for a face-to-face session with NeighborWorks America, a nationwide network of counseling agencies.
Some of NeighborWorks' local agencies are already overwhelmed. Wait times for an appointment vary widely, from a day or two in some locations to several weeks for hard-hit areas like Ohio.
Officials from NeighborWorks and the Homeownership Preservation Foundation recognize the strain put on their networks, but funding, hiring, and training new counselors isn't an easy process.
The Hope Now Alliance estimates that it costs between $12,000 and $18,000 (see correction below) to identify and train each counselor, before factoring in equipment costs, said Laurie Maggiano, the deputy director of asset management for the department of Housing and Urban Development. The Alliance hopes to offset part of those costs through a $200 million congressional appropriation.
Lenders will fund the phone counseling sessions themselves on a per-session basis beginning on Saturday, according to the Homeownership Preservation Foundation.
Even with the funding in place, the Homeownership Preservation Foundation and local counseling agencies might have to scramble to find and train counselors to handle demand.
At the Consumer Credit Counseling Service of San Francisco, recent college graduates and experienced counselors have salaries between $30,000 and $40,000. The low salaries make it difficult to recruit real estate or loan professionals who might be best suited to help homeowners in trouble, Harper said.
"It's hard for them to take the salaries we can pay them. You need someone who really wants to help. It's talking to one person after the other who are in foreclosure, and that can be traumatic," Harper said.
And once a willing counselor is found, they still have to be trained. Housing counselors with NeighborWorks need a baseline certification, though until now those certifications focused on help with buying a home rather than foreclosure prevention.
Jason Zavala, who runs a homeownership education company and is slated to teach a foreclosure course next week, said that counselors seem to mostly come from other areas of the nonprofit industry. Many of the counselors, who originally helped get low-income homeowners into homes, are scrambling to become foreclosure-prevention counselors, he said.
"They are outrageously inundated with these kinds of requests," he said. "There's not enough funding or people to meet this demand."
NeighborWorks will launch its foreclosure prevention certification course next week at a training session in Portland. The five-day course, which has about 140 students, is booked to capacity. About 60 more students plan to take some sort of foreclosure-prevention class.
"As an industry, we're all looking to find ways to strengthen capacity," said Jayna Bower, director of the NeighborWorks Center for Homeownership Education and Counseling.
To speed the process of counseling homeowners, the Hope Now Alliance is developing a Web-based tool that can take homeowners' loan data from the servicer and spit out options that are helpful to the homeowner and likely to be approved by the investors who hold the mortgage. That tool is still in the process of development.
When threatened with default, most homeowners seem to rather duck and cover than ask their bank for help. According to a 2005 Roper study, 50% of homeowners who enter foreclosure never spoke with their lender.
Correction: An earlier version of this story reported that the cost to train counselors is between $15,000 and $20,000. In fact, the cost is between $12,000 and $18,000, according to Housing and Urban Development.
Wondering if you qualify for the mortgage bailout? Money Magazine is doing a feature on the latest foreclosure prevention efforts by the government. If your mortgage is causing you financial difficulty or you think it will, please e-mail Stephen_gandel@moneymail.com.