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VOL. 124 | NO. 113 | Thursday, June 11, 2009

Clark Calls Foreclosure Counseling ‘Powerful’ Way to Help

By Andy Meek

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Emily Clark

As city and county leaders continued wrestling this week with the details of a lawsuit against national mortgage lending companies they’ve been planning for months to drag into court, Emily Clark’s phone keeps ringing.

As a foreclosure prevention counselor for United Housing Inc., Clark’s job puts her on the front lines of a battlefield littered with the casualties of a poor job market and high-cost loans that once infatuated homebuyers and lenders.

Her job also brings into focus the reason local officials have drafted a complaint against a publicly unidentified group of mortgage lenders whose discriminatory lending practices are alleged to have considerably worsened the area’s foreclosure problem. Since late last year, officials talked about suing those companies in an attempt to hit the pause button on foreclosures locally and to win some level of damages to offset lost tax value.

The court action will hinge on a legal rationale laid out in the complaint, which in turn will draw from a less tangible element – the mass of individual borrowers who’ve seen their homes snatched away and put on the auction block. Those situations are where Clark and her colleagues at UHI come into the picture.

As each day fades into the next, Clark is introduced to as many as 10 potential clients whose stories of desperation may join the stack of case files threatening to overtake her desk. She’s also bilingual, so the ability to counsel English and Spanish borrowers broadens the pot of potential borrowers available for her.

She’s been at UHI a little more than a year. Though the number of new borrowers she’s hearing from daily has grown to between eight and 10, that does not include the existing clients she’s working with.

Clark couldn’t pinpoint the number of phone calls from new borrowers this time last year, but said it has definitely grown.

“Basically, I talk to people both over the phone and in person and counsel them on their situation,” she said. “It’s both general counseling and official counseling to see if the situation is resolvable, if there’s any way they can stay in the house. Or if there’s no way they can stay in the house, then what we would do from there.”

She also works as a middleman between loan companies and borrowers.

“I also guide (borrowers) through the process for applying for a loan modification or a refinance or whatever it is that best suits their situation and help them work through that,” she said. “I communicate directly with their mortgage company as a kind of liaison between them and the mortgage company to try to negotiate the terms of a modification or a refinance.

“And then when the documents come in I look over those too, to make sure everything looks OK before they accept any offer.”

Clark also presents a semi-regular class that gives borrowers general information about foreclosure. From there, she schedules individual appointments with borrowers to look over mortgage paperwork and budget information.

After that, she continues to follow up on their cases.

In about a year, she’s seen a shift in factors that lead to foreclosure for the people she works with. It’s gone from loans with high price tags to job losses that are wiping out incomes and the ability to pay mortgages.

“Over the last year things have kind of snowballed in the economy in general,” Clark said. “So now you still have the people who have the bad loans with the interest rates that are increasing and predatory loans, but you also have a second set of people … who are either out of work because they’ve been laid off or their hours have been cut or their salary has been cut.”

One of Clark’s colleagues at UHI – homebuyer education manager Sharon Walker – is seeing the same thing.

“Now we’re seeing where people have lost their jobs, or people have their jobs but their pay has been reduced,” Walker said. “And then full-time jobs now are part-time jobs.”

UHI is a nonprofit agency that specializes in homebuyer education. The group also provides counseling about affordable housing and low-interest loan products.

UHI also is one of several groups in Memphis that are part of the Memphis Housing Counseling Network, www.memphishousingcounseling.org. That group is comprised of housing counselors approved to do foreclosure counseling in the area.

Clark said they have resources for homebuyer education classes and a phone number people can call (725-8361) to get help.

“With the financial crisis that’s occurring right now, I am glad to be in a position where I’m able to make a difference and impact people’s lives in such a real way,” she said. “To be actually doing something to try to prevent that from getting any worse is pretty powerful.”

PROPERTY SALES 92 480 7,835
MORTGAGES 115 551 8,785
BUILDING PERMITS 325 1,167 17,068
BANKRUPTCIES 39 311 5,159