Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Continuing need for foreclosure counseling is sign of still-ailing economy

There’s good news and bad news in the report to Congress this week on the National Foreclosure Mitigation Counseling (NFMC) program, which NeighborWorks America launched in 2008.
First, the good news: Nearly 1.6 million homeowners have received help to date from the NFMC program -- 124,512 in just the 12-month period ending on May 31, 2013. (We know the counseling helps. A 2011 Urban Institute analysis showed that individuals who take advantage of the program are more successful in obtaining mortgage modifications, and are able to negotiate larger monthly savings, than those who do not.)

Pam Bailey, new
blogger for
It’s also an improvement that in the last year, the ratio of people seeking help who have mortgages with fixed interest rates of 8 percent or less increased to nearly two-thirds (59 percent) – up from just 30 percent in October 2008. Clearly, the disastrous era of destructive “sub-prime” loans – with interest rates that soar higher over time – is on the wane.

The Great Recession and ‘jobless recovery’ take their toll

Why, then, are so many individuals still needing help to avoid foreclosure? An answer can be found in a couple of other statistics in the NFMC report: For example, when they first entered the program, nearly 37 percent of the individuals counseled in the last year were spending half of their income or more on mortgage-related costs – well above the maximum recommended 31 percent. Nearly one in five were spending more than 75 percent of their income on principal, interest, taxes and insurance – a rate that has held steady since 2008.

Housing costs have grown to be such a drag on household budgets primarily due to loss of – or a significant reduction in – employment income (reported by 64 percent of persons seeking NFMC services).   As noted in The New York Times recently, “the consequences of job loss go far beyond the spell of joblessness. Research shows that layoffs can worsen earnings, health and even mortality rates for up to 20 years after the initial displacement. Not to mention home ownership.”

This chart from the NFMC report shows that most
"Level Four" individuals (who have a debt-to-income
ratio of 55%) who seek counseling are aged 45-64.
There are two groups of people who seem to be struggling the most: recent graduates and older workers. A report from The Opportunity Nation released just this week documented that almost 15 percent of individuals between the ages of 16 and 24 (that’s almost 6 million young people) cannot find jobs once they have completed school. However, according to the U.S. Labor Department, while unemployment rates for newly graduated students are higher, older workers who have been laid off have a much harder time finding work. Over the last year, the average duration of unemployment for older people was 53 weeks, compared with 19 weeks for teenagers and young adults. (The NFMC report reflects this trend. Slightly more than half – 53.9 percent – of individuals seeking counseling through the program who have debt-to-income ratios of 55 percent or higher are between the ages of 45 and 64.)

This is a subject that hits close to home for me. After living overseas for three years, I returned home in late 2011 to the Great Recession and a forbidding job market.  I found my way to several LinkedIn forums and discovered large communities of mostly over-50 professionals who had been laid off and just could not find new positions. And the longer they were out of work, the harder it seemed to be to get interviews – a discrimination against the long-term unemployed confirmed by recent research.

Chronic unemployment becomes vicious cycle

A study conducted by Rand Ghayad, a visiting scholar at the Boston Fed, and William Dickens, a professor of economics at Northeastern University, found that as long as you've been out of work for less than six months, you can get called by companies for interviews even if you don't have experience. But after you've been unemployed for six months, it doesn't matter what experience you have. Quite literally.

“There's a new cliff in town, and it's much scarier than the fiscal cliff,” wrote Matthew O’Brien in The Atlantic in December. “It doesn't have anything to do with expiring tax cuts or sequesters. It has to do with people who have been out of work for six months or longer. It's the worst cliff of them all: the Unemployment Cliff.”

My new LinkedIn connections soon got to the point when they felt lucky to be offered any job, even at administrative levels and salaries far below what they once earned. Many a story was posted about having to give up homes and move in with others, whether friends or adult children. And those were perhaps the lucky ones; they had people who would take them in. I didn’t have a house to pay for, fortunately, but rents are high in the DC area, and as I started my job search, I felt their fear. (You can read some of their gut-wrenching stories on the website, "Over 50 and Out of Work.")

Indeed, says Vivien King, a senior manager at NeighborWorks America who works with the NFMC program, although the service has been able to help thousands of families stay in their homes, it is not always possible. “Sometimes a successful outcome is transition out of their home,” she says.

Mr. Chavez (far left)and his daughter with Gerber DeLeĆ³n -- a
homeownership preservation specialist with
NeighborWorks member Select Milwaukee.
Consider the Chavez family, who like 19 percent of NFMC clients, are Hispanic (a segment that is just 8 percent of the overall U.S. population and thus is over-represented among those seeking help from the program, along with African-Americans). In 2001, the couple and their four children had moved into a small duplex, followed by purchase of their first single-family home in 2007. They held onto their duplex, renting it out for additional income. Then their world turned upside down. In November of 2011, Ms. Chavez was let go from her full-time job, and the loss of the second income strained the family’s finances so much that they fell behind on their mortgage.  They tried to re-negotiate the terms, but by that time their financial condition was too shaky to allow them to qualify.

Their lender referred them to a NeighborWorks organization, where a Spanish-speaking counselor was able to provide the trusted advice they so desperately needed.  With Ms. Chavez still out of work and no offers on their house after several months on the market, the organization’s counselor helped guide the couple through a deed-in-lieu agreement with the lender, avoiding foreclosure.  Fortunately for the Chavez family, they had a fall-back -- the duplex they had rented out. Today, they live in the duplex, and although they had to give up both their single-family home and the down payment they had invested, they report an overwhelming sense of relief, free of the burden of struggling to make ends meet – and losing.

The Chavez family is relatively fortunate. They had a back-up option. Many others do not, and need assistance in finding new housing that is more affordable. This is why I am so glad to have joined the staff of NeighborWorks America. I can’t find jobs that pay a decent salary for all of those hard-working individuals I met on LinkedIn. But now I can do my part to help make sure they at least can find or keep an affordable place in a good community to call home.

Written by Pam Bailey, communications writer for NeighborWorks America. She would love for you to post your own stories and comments!