Online alternative to foreclosures
MortgageKeeper aims to connect troubled borrowers with counselingBy Matt Carter, Thursday, December 14, 2006.
With the cost of foreclosing on a property running $40,000 or more, it's no surprise that lenders would rather continue receiving loan payments from borrowers than resort to taking their homes away.
But homeowners get into trouble on their mortgages for many reasons, which can make helping them through difficult times complex.
Some borrowers may simply be overwhelmed when an adjustable-rate mortgage resets to a higher rate, and monthly payments become unmanageable. Others may be coping with the loss of a job, unexpected medical or home repair bills, rising utility bills or a substance abuse problem.
Chances are, a lender's collections department can't offer much advice or assistance to borrowers who are coping with issues that aren't related to the terms of their loan. Even credit counselors aren't the best source of advice for problems that are more than just financial.
But there are hundreds of nonprofits around the nation that are qualified and equipped to help people work through such issues. Ithaca, N.Y.-based MortgageKeeper Referral Services Inc. maintains a database of such organizations, providing lenders access to the database for a fee.
The company is a collaboration of J. Michael Collins, who spent more than a decade researching consumers on behalf of mortgage lenders, and Rochelle Nawrocki Gorey, who has 15 years experience working with nonprofit community development organizations.
Collins' past clients included a large government-sponsored mortgage lender, and he's worked with mortgage counseling programs in dozens of cities including Chicago. In focus groups he's conducted with borrowers in foreclosure, many complained that lenders didn't listen to their explanations of the problems they were facing or offer any help, he said.
"We said (to lenders), 'Why not make referrals to local services? There is probably some organization in your community that can help you out,' " Collins said. "The lenders said there is no way to keep up on what services are available."
Nonprofits come and go, Collins said, and the services they provide are constantly changing and can vary in quality.
Collins and Gorey founded MortgageKeeper not only to identify what nonprofit organizations are out there, but to stay current on the services they provide and to monitor the quality of delivery.
"When somebody is in trouble, the last thing they need is to be sent down a blind alley" to an organization that no longer exists or doesn't have the necessary expertise, Collins said.
After identifying potential service providers, MortgageKeeper interviews local experts to make sure they are reputable, and then follows up with people who are referred to them to see if they would recommend the service to others, Collins said.
The work involved in keeping the database accurate, up-to-date and reliable means MortgageKeeper only provides coverage in 15 cities. But those cities were selected because they are among those with the highest rate of foreclosure, and Collins and Gorey plan to add 10 cities next year.
For now, MortgageKeeper tracks nonprofits in Akron, Ohio; Atlanta; Baltimore; Chicago; Cincinnati; Cleveland; Columbus, Ohio; Dayton, Ohio; Dallas; Detroit; Indianapolis; Philadelphia; San Antonio; St. Louis; and Toledo, Ohio. Groups in the database offer services in 17 areas, including job counseling, tax help, assistance with pharmaceutical costs and utility bills, and substance abuse help.
Substance abuse, while "not a huge source of default and delinquencies," was a factor in about 8 percent or 9 percent of foreclosures in studies Collins has done, he said. A family member with a substance abuse problem can drain its finances or keep members from being employed.
Working with borrowers to resolve such issues "is a low cost way to say we're listening to you. We're not going to provide you a free ride, but we're interested in working this out" to prevent foreclosure, Collins said.
MortgageKeeper has been up and running for a year, and so far has five clients that do business nationwide, including the Homeownership Preservation Foundation. The Minneapolis-based group, founded in 2004 with $20 million in seed money from GMAC-RFC, partners with local, state and federal government agencies and nonprofits to keep homeowners out of foreclosure.
MortgageKeeper provides services on a subscription basis, with clients paying a licensing fee for each person accessing its database. This week, MortgageKeeper rolled out a new site, www.NonprofitReferral.org, that provides access to the database over the Web.
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