Standing down the deluge
Driving the attractive residential streets in Noble, around Lee Road, or any Cleveland Heights neighborhood for that matter, is somewhat deceptive.
You see a sprinkling of signs: For Sale - New Price - Reduced Price - Sale by Owner, and some houses, if you look closely, are empty. But if you look at a map with dots of houses in foreclosure, it seems more like a pretty bad case of the chicken pox.
From 2006 through 2009, foreclosures proceeded steadily and briskly. According to the Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Court and Case Western Reserve University’s Center on Urban Poverty and Community Development, 2,203 Cleveland Heights homeowners have lost their houses. That’s about 550 a year or one and a half per day--for four years.
Like the tidy streets, homeowners in trouble may look OK, too. "They have been keeping up appearances for so long with family and friends," said Keisha Matthews, a housing counselor at Community Housing Solutions, which serves Greater Cleveland and receives about 200 calls a month asking for counseling. "Often, they spill out everything: problems in finance, marriage. This is a safe place get it all off your chest."
With a 50-client caseload, Matthews and Molly Nackley, two of the housing counselors at Community Housing Solutions, attempt every day to stand down or at least slow the deluge of foreclosure.
Both see a shift in the past year. "Now most who come in are here because of job loss or reduced income, not because of bad loans," said Nackley. The bad economy is hitting hard. People are often overwhelmed.
"It is very, very private," Nackley said, "the hardships, the job loss, feeling taken and overwhelmed with the cost of things and at a loss as to how to approach any of it. We are here to guide them through the process and help them see what their options are."
Counselors help clients create a budget and work out what a more realistic payment, or housing plan, would be before approaching the lender.
But compassion is only one side of the job. The other is the steely perseverance it takes to deal with lenders. Getting the paperwork where it is supposed to be is a monumental feat. "A call is transferred five times and then disconnected. You fax something and they say, ‘No, I didn’t get it,’ or ‘Why did they give you this number, try this one.’ You are lucky if ever speak to someone who can make decisions," Nackley said.
Matthews says one of the advantages of the mediation program set up by Common Pleas Court is that it obligates the lender to sit across the table. No more run-around. "Mediation freezes the foreclosure process for four to six months during which the client can stay in the house. Even if the client is eventually out, they have more time to plan the transition," Matthews said.
President Obama’s loan modification program, Making Home Affordable, is also helping. Under this program, a mortgage can be no more than 31 percent of income, and interest can be as low as 2 percent. But processing the paperwork is still slow.
Foreclosures cost the city in loss of tax revenue, vandalism, grass cutting, and ultimately, the decline in housing values degrade the tax base. And the foreclosures keep rolling. Right now, 288 houses are bank-owned. Since January, an additional 34 houses are in pre-foreclosure and 29 are up for sheriff sale, according to RealtyTrac.
A thousand houses stand empty, Dennis Keating, a professor at Cleveland State University, told the Severance Neighborhood Organization at an April 11 discussion. That is some ball-and-chain on a community that makes considerable effort to improve itself.
Housing counselor Keisha Matthews says:
"I want to get a bullhorn: ‘Ther are options for you. Reach out for help early.’
"I applaud the people who come in. Admitting that you need help is the hardest part. I tell clients, ‘There is a tomorrow. We will figure a way through this.’
"The service is free. Call 211. They will send you to a HUD-approved counseling agency. You will not pay for the service.
"There are predatory companies out there. They may ask you to pay them, not your lender, and say they will look into renegotiating your mortgage. Paying up-front is a huge red flag. You will get the foreclosure notice and those you paid will have disappeared."Eleanor Mallet is a longtime explorer of the nooks and crannies in the Heights. She may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.