Housing Counselors Share in the Strain of Foreclosures
Nonprofit Workers' Caseloads Are Rising, and So Is Their Exposure to Homeowners' Anguish
DENVER -- It was one of Zach Urban's most trying days as a housing counselor: A woman arrived on his doorstep so distraught over the thought of losing her townhome that he feared she might harm herself.
Sherie Zamora sought Urban's help when she temporarily lost her job and couldn't get relief from her mortgage company. She said Urban was calm and reassuring as they developed a plan. But as she left his office, he gave her some suicide-prevention hot-line numbers.
"I could laugh about this now but, at the time, it was not a laughing matter," said Zamora, 43, an insurance agent who saved her Denver townhouse nearly four years ago. "I was at the end of my rope, and I felt hopeless."
Urban is one of thousands of counselors at nonprofit housing agencies who preside over a court of last resort for financially troubled homeowners. It's become a more stressful job as the nation's housing slump sends caseloads skyrocketing. The demand -- and the heart-wrenching stories -- can seem never-ending.
"There's the bad days where you've had five people come into your office that have all just broken down crying and, many times, looked to you to resolve the issues that took years and months to fall into place, and that's something that won't be solved overnight," said Urban, counseling program manager at Brothers Redevelopment in Denver.
"But then you turn the corner one day, working with somebody and that house is saved or that family is given a positive resolution, and those are the good days."
Homeowners of all ages and income levels have fallen into trouble over the one-two punch of a softening housing market and problems with subprime mortgages, which are made to homeowners with weak credit. Sometimes it's financial mismanagement. Other times it's a lost job, medical issues or another life-changing event.
The news isn't getting much better. Foreclosure filings nearly doubled nationwide in September, and new-home sales are projected to fall 23 percent this year.
In Colorado, one of the hardest-hit states, foreclosures rose 31 percent in 2006, to 28,220. They are expected to climb an additional 30 percent in 2007, Urban said.
Counselors help homeowners examine their finances; what it will take to catch up with payments, if that's feasible; and how the foreclosure process works.
They also work with lenders, often spending hours trying to reach the right representative. Urban joked that he has passed so much time on hold that he can play "name that tune" with the canned music.
Officials worry that counselors may quit over burnout or find better jobs just as demand is soaring, said Meg Burns, director of the Office of Single Family Housing Program Development for the Department of Housing and Urban Development.
"I don't think people fully appreciate the pressure that's being put on those counselor organizations today," she said. "Here we have all these nonprofit organizations struggling to provide services without adequate funding."
HUD has certified about 2,300 nonprofit agencies to offer financial counseling, a number that has not increased significantly in recent years because of funding constraints.
However, the number of counselors seeking foreclosure-prevention training has jumped, according to NeighborWorks, a nationwide housing finance training organization.
It trained 1,678 counselors in fiscal 2007, up from 143 in fiscal 2004, and is adding classes to help ease the burden, including a new stress-management course, said Karen Hoskins, who handles its homeownership training programs.
Although there are no minimum job qualifications, most nonprofit housing agencies look for candidates who have some real estate lending experience. Many enter the field from banking, real estate or mortgage lending companies, Hoskins said.
Urban said agencies look for applicants with a bachelor's degree and a couple of years' experience in real estate lending. Salaries typically range from $30,000 to $50,000.
Wages could be an area of growing concern if demand for their help continues, Hoskins said. Some organizations have boosted salaries, but the increases have not been proportionate to the increased workload.
"A lot of individuals who choose this profession do it from the heart and have a desire to help people overcome the crisis," Hoskins said. "That's tremendously draining."
Urban was Brothers Redevelopment's sole housing counselor in 2000, and the agency had about 50 cases that year. It now has eight counselors, and its caseload topped 500 this year.
Urban also is administrator of Colorado's foreclosure hot line, staffed by about 50 counselors from 23 nonprofit agencies. Counselors have handled more than 21,000 calls since the line opened in October 2006.
Counselors must be advocates, negotiators and good listeners to cope with consumers who are angry, ashamed or confused, not knowing where to turn or what to do when they fall behind on mortgage payments.
"We have folks that come in here who have stacks of unopened correspondence from the mortgage company, who has been sending them letters saying, 'You know, you're behind,' " said NeighborWorks counselor Chad Klawetter, 32, of Waco, Tex.
At the DuPage Homeownership Center in Wheaton, Ill., managers fight burnout by limiting each counselor to four clients per day and building in down time. They also make sure no counselor deals exclusively with default work, said Dru Bergman, the executive director who oversees counselors.
"It's been a more challenging period for them than we've seen, than I can remember," she said. "It can be stressful for the counselors in terms of having to be the bearer of bad news and be the reality check. When they do have a success, we truly do celebrate that."
It was nearly four years ago that Zamora sought out Urban's help after she fell a couple months behind on mortgage payments. Urban, she said, helped her understand the process and her rights, and helped her work out a repayment agreement to save her home.
His best advice was to remember that a credit rating is just a number and that it "doesn't define who we are or our character," she said.
"I'm on the other side," Zamora said. "Had I not worked with Zach, I don't know that I would still be in my home."
Housing Counselors Share in the Strain of Foreclosures - washingtonpost.com