ACCESS broadens forclosure assistance offerings

With fresh money for an interactive website and foreclosure prevention counselors in the valley, ACCESS Inc. hopes to slow foreclosures — and educate more troubled homeowners about realistic options, even if it means learning they're out of options.

ACCESS, which provides a number of services for low-income people, was informed of the grant in August and chose to use the funds to avoid layoffs, shifting people in their housing department to counseling slots, bringing in more training and enabling counselors to attend mediation sessions, says ACCESS housing resource leader Karen Pierce-Cooper.

Using $4 million from the giant National Mortgage Settlement — a suit against five of the nation's largest lenders — the state has funded 26 new mortgage counselors. It also has created a website, www.oregonhomeownersupport.gov, which directs homeowners to their nearest counselor and educates them on the process, says Ben Pray, outreach manager for Oregon Housing and Community Services.

"Thousands of Oregon homeowners are struggling to make payments and avoid foreclosure — and we know foreclosure counseling works," says Pray. "The Rogue Valley is one of the hardest-hit areas in the state, so it has the greatest need for this help. The money is helping us tremendously to avoid foreclosures."

Jackson County had 400 to 500 foreclosure filings in 2011 and, because of unemployment, is seeing no improvement this year. But enhanced counseling, says Pierce-Cooper, means homeowners can "take a hard look at their circumstances, present all realistic alternatives and recommend a choice."

In 25 percent to 30 percent of cases, counseling clients are quickly told their only option is to let go of their home and move on, she says.

Because of its move to fund increased counseling within the agency, ACCESS has been able to handle all comers and not let services drop below earlier levels, Pierce-Cooper says.

"The impact of the funding statewide will hopefully be to slow down this crisis," she says, "but the real cause, lack of jobs here. There's no answer yet to that."

State Rep. Peter Buckley, D-Ashland, hailed the grants, noting, "Homeowners are struggling tremendously just to get basic information on loans and options. We've had to pass legislation to mandate that banks must communicate with homeowners ... so additional resources for counseling are an essential step in the process."

The grant is part of $30 million Oregon won in a $25 billion settlement last February with other states against City, Wells Fargo, Bank of America, JPMorgan Chase and Ally/GMAC.

Pull-downs on the housing support website direct homeowners to other programs, including the Loan Refinance and Assistance Pilot Project, for owners whose mortgages exceed their home's value, the Loan Preservation Assistance of up to $20,000 to get loans current and Mortgage Payment Assistance for the jobless.

On the website, ACCESS lists its services as mortgage delinquency and default resolution, pre-purchase counseling, pre-purchase home buyer education workshops and resolving and preventing mortgage delinquency workshops.

The counseling is free and confidential. More information, including a video walk-through on ACCESS' three main options — counseling, mediation and legal assistance — is available on the website. Appointments may be made at ACCESS by calling 541-779-6691, ext. 355.

John Darling is a freelance writer living in Ashland. E-mail him at jdarling@jeffnet.org.

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