Homeowners facing foreclosure can find a lot of assistance, but pride and fear can stand in the way of asking for help. State figures show just one homeowner in 10 takes advantage of the myriad programs available.
In Tacoma, help is now coming door to door.
Home Ownership and Mediation, or HOME, began in late November as a partnership between the city of Tacoma and the Seattle University School of Law. It’s an $11,200 program funded by grants from the Legal Foundation of Washington, the state Department of Financial Institutions and the Pierce County Foreclosure Prevention Roundtable.
Some 17 people have been hired to canvass neighborhoods across the city where one or more homes is in some stage of foreclosure. For a few hours each day, canvassers knock on doors and deliver information on how homeowners, or someone they know, can get help to prevent foreclosure.
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1 in 10 number of homeowners who ask for help when facing foreclosure
In the late afternoon Dec. 10, two of those canvassers set out from their office at the Tacoma Urban League to two neighborhoods in South Tacoma. At the Urban League, Daniel Smith and Sherrhonda Brown work with struggling homeowners regularly. They know how hard the process can be, even eight years after the Great Recession began.
Many homeowners just give up.
“Homes are being foreclosed and people are just walking away,” Smith said. “No matter how educated you are, some of the paperwork can be tricky. It can be quite tedious and overwhelming.”
That decision leaves damage in its wake: It disrupts lives and damages credit, as well as harming the neighborhood itself. Empty homes can mean unkempt lawns, not to mention creating a target for vandals and squatters. All those things drive down property values.
So Smith and Brown bundled up in the wind and rain, and took it block by block, house by house.
Every canvassing team has a list of homes with a “notice of trustee sale” — the last step before the homeowner loses the property. The teams find that home, then knock on every door on the block.
“We know how powerful word of mouth is,” Smith said. He has a client whose whose loan modification came through just this week.
“She said she didn’t put up her Christmas lights because she didn’t know if she’d keep her home,” he said.
This client came to Smith before the canvassing project began. However, Smith said she was referred to him by another client, who was referred to him by yet another. It’s this kind of word-of-mouth system that the canvassing effort is trying to support.
“We want people to pay it forward.” Smith said.
No matter how educated you are, some of the paperwork (to keep a home out of foreclosure) can be tricky. It can be quite tedious and overwhelming.
Daniel Smith, housing counselor
Canvassers know people are naturally suspicious of strangers coming to the door, so targeted neighborhoods were sent postcards to let people know the canvassers are coming. The police are notified, too, Smith said, in case someone suspects the teams are people up to no good.
Meaningful conversations with homeowners happen, Smith and Brown said, but they are rare. Most of the time, the pair introduces themselves, explains their task, and hands over a small packet that contains information on all the help that’s available.
When the homes have a “no solicitation” sign, they respect it — they don’t knock or ring the bell, but merely leave the information packet tucked into the door.
When the homes have large dogs barking loudly, Brown respects that, too. Only Smith goes to the door.
“I’m the chicken,” Brown said. “I say, Daniel, tag the door and keep it moving!”
The few people who answered the door told Smith and Brown they either didn’t need help or that they were renting the home. The packet also contains information about renters’ rights during foreclosure. Only one person refused to accept the packet.
Pierce County led the state in the rate of foreclosed homes in November.
When it comes to the housing crisis wrought by the recession, Pierce County is “the hardest hit in the state of Washington,” said Angeline Thomas, the law school’s Foreclosure Mediation and Outreach Project attorney who runs the Tacoma program.
The most recent figures from RealtyTrac, a real estate analytics firm, show Pierce County at the top of the list. In November, one of every 701 homes in Pierce County was in some stage of foreclosure. The state rate is half that: one in every 1,423.
Thomas started the Pierce County Foreclosure Prevention Roundtable in 2013. The group of service providers, housing advocates and others who meet every other month to collaborate and share ideas. She also was a consultant on Seattle’s canvassing effort, which ran from September 2014 to May 2015. Those teams canvassed 2,100 homes and had 549 in-person contacts.
Those numbers may seem small, but Thomas said the program was a success because the Washington Homeownership Resource Center saw a 12 percent to 13 percent increase in call volume at the time of the canvassing.
The Tacoma program hired canvassers for $15 an hour. They are mostly college students, though a few are professional housing counselors, such as Smith and Brown. Thomas manages the program from her office in Seattle.
“There was no reason not to do this in Tacoma,” she said. “I’ve always been looking for how can I affect Pierce County in a way that is tangible.”
The canvassing effort will continue through February.
The information contained in the canvassers’ packets can be requested by calling the City of Tacoma’s 3-1-1 service.