Help for struggling homeowners

Cook County launches foreclosure mediation program

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By ROBERT FELTON

With nearly 1000 foreclosures in the Austin community, current and former homeowners have been looking for help during this still difficult housing market. Cook County recently launched a foreclosure mediation program to offer assistance. The program offers Chicago area homeowners free mediation with their lenders to negotiate their mortgage and avoid foreclosure.

Austin has among the highest foreclosures in the city. With respect to bank- and government-owned properties, Austin has more than 800, according to Realtytrac.com, a Web site that track's distressed properties nationwide. The Cook County Mortgage Foreclosure Mediation Program, launched earlier this year, is offered by the Circuit Court of Cook County.

"The [court] has been implementing innovative programs in response to a burgeoning foreclosure caseload since 2002," Circuit Court Chief Judge Timothy Evans said in a written statement.

The goal, he added, is to get homeowners into court and provide them assistance. The Cook County program is modeled after a similar one in Philadelphia that began in 2008. Since its launch, more than 10,000 cases have been mediated between lenders and homeowners, and nearly 3,000 cases settled. The Philadelphia program, though, looks to delay the foreclosure process for its clients. The Cook County program, meanwhile, addresses the possibility of foreclosure once a summons has been delivered.

In July 2010, the Circuit Court reached out to several community-based organizations regarding the program, including Austin's Bethel New Life. Kristian Moore, Bethel's director of housing, said her organization's outreach begins via a letter notifying residents about the program, and later meeting with the homeowners directly. The homeowners are identified though data complied by the Woodstock Institute, a Chicago-based, nonprofit organization that does research on lending.

"The second component involves reaching out to local political figures to encourage them to make their constituents aware of the program" Moore said.

She explained that homeowners oftentimes will put off contacting their lender when they begin to fall behind on their mortgage payments, fearing that lenders will refuse to negotiate.

"It really is like a snowball effect that occurs," Moore said. "Residents will put it off and before they know it, it's too late. We want to make them feel more comfortable contacting their lender in order to save their home."

Once a qualified homeowner's application has been accepted, they meet with a housing counselor, and later with a lawyer to request a "motion for mediation" at their hearing, which could take up to 60 days.

Cook County's mediation program is funded through a $3.5 million grant from the Cook County Board, so far helping roughly 2,000 homeowners.

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