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Michael Harris II his sMichael Harris III 7 their home Carpentersville Ill. Wednesday June 13 2012. 

| Andrew A. Nelles~For

Michael Harris II and his son Michael Harris III, 7, at their home in Carpentersville, Ill., on Wednesday, June 13, 2012. | Andrew A. Nelles~For Sun-Times Media |

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Hardest Hit

Homeowners struggling to pay their mortgage because of a loss of income through no fault of their own can qualify for up to $25,000 in assistance under the Illinois Hardest Hit program.

The money can be used to pay arrearages to reinstate a mortgage, or to lower upcoming mortgage payments by up to 18 months.

For more information or to apply, go to or contact Consumer Credit Counseling Services at 630-844-3327.

There is no cost to apply for the program.

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Updated: July 18, 2012 6:07AM

Michael Harris is proud of his home.

The cozy black-and-white ranch sits on a leafy cul-de-sac in southeast Carpentersville. Since he bought the place in 2009, Harris has been hard at work, tearing out walls, ripping up flooring, salvaging and repurposing worn furniture, and coaxing the grass to grow in the backyard.

“All of this was clover,” he said, surveying the shady, spacious back yard now covered in grass from the deck he built himself. “That whole area was just dirt. Some of my grass has even spread into the neighbor’s yard. They’re real thankful for that.”

His home, Harris said, is a major source of pride, second only to his 7-year-old son, who sleeps in a race car bed in a room with racing stripes Harris painted on the walls.

But Harris and his son almost lost those walls, the house, the yard, and the years of work that went into them.

“I was literally in tears,” said the former Navy avionics technician. “I was getting threatening phone calls. I was making the mortgage payment, but it was robbing Peter to pay Paul to make it work.”

In 2010, Harris was working as a biomedical engineer, installing and repairing MRIs, CAT scanners and cancer-fighting linear accelerators, a high-tech device first developed at Fermilab in Batavia to fry cancer cells without damaging healthy tissue. When his company downsized, he was laid off.

“The first thing, once I lost my job, I got rid of the Mercedes,” he said. “You don’t need a Mercedes unless you have a job.”

Then he started looking for work. He dipped into his emergency savings. When that ran out, Harris started cashing out his 401(k) to cover the bills, buy school clothes for his son and shop for groceries.

By early 2012, it was all gone.

“I was trying every program,” he said.

He worked with Bank of America for a mortgage adjustment or refinance, but didn’t get anywhere. Then Harris found the Illinois Hardest Hit program.

“It took a whole ton of bricks off me,” he said.

Illinois’ Hardest Hit

A tall stack of manila file folders sits on Susan Cascio’s desk in her windowless office at the nonprofit Consumer Credit Counseling Services in downtown Aurora. The heavy workload and the view would seem like a step down from her previous positions, but she’s in love with her new job.

“I’ve gone full circle,” she said. “I’ve helped people finance their dream homes, and now I’m helping them save their homes.”

For years, she worked as a loan officer at community banks, and during a brief stint as a loan officer at Countrywide Home Loans she saw up close the impending sub-prime mortgage crisis.

At Consumer Credit Counseling Services, Cascio now manages nearly 300 cases for the Illinois Hardest Hit program.

“When I first talk to people, they’re desperate. They’re desperate for help,” she said. “A lot of their stories are the same, a lot of men and women who work in the trades — trucking, carpentry — they were hit hardest. We also have a lot of people injured or sick, collecting disability. It’s really for anybody having difficulty paying their mortgage because they are underemployed through no fault of their own.”

The Illinois Hardest Hit program is a project of the Obama administration, founded in February 2010 to provide mortgage assistance to those who have been hardest hit by the economic downturn.

It offers struggling homeowners up to $25,000 to make back payments owed to mortgage companies, to pay a portion of the monthly payment for up to 18 months, or a combination of both.

The program is open to homeowners who have seen their household income drop 20 percent or more through no fault of their own, usually as a result of layoffs or hours reductions.

And there are plenty of other restrictions, too. Homeowners can’t owe more than $500,000 on their homes, and they can’t be more than $25,000 in arrears. The company holding the mortgage also has to agree to participate.

The application process is also fairly involved, requiring piles of paperwork.

But in the end, the hundreds of Fox Valley families that have been approved for the program have the same reaction on closing day.

“They are ecstatic,” said Mike Racki, director of CCCS.

Swallowing pride

For months, Racki was the one-man show administering the Hardest Hit program in Kane, Kendall and DuPage counties.

“When they come in to sign the final closing paperwork, they know they’re keeping their home,” Racki said. “It’s a very happy day.”

At least for most.

For Greg, a northern Will County resident who asked to keep his last name private while he’s hunting for his next job, closing on his assistance package from the Hardest Hit program was a day of mixed emotions.

“I was happy I got the assistance, but shook up that I was now in that group that needed help,” he said. “I had to swallow my pride.”

Greg admits there was a little malice there, too, against the banks that had taken risky bets and brought the mortgage industry, and eventually the rest of the economy, crashing down. For most of his career — he’s 62 — he’s worked as a salesman in the manufacturing sector.

“My industry collapsed. It’s now 15 percent of what it used to be, and all of those jobs have gone elsewhere, to Russia and China,” Greg said. “Merger, downsizing — call it what you want, but it’s not coming back.”

Once his savings ran out and he was three months behind on his mortgage payments, the bank started sending paperwork to modify the loan.

“But I didn’t have a job — what were they going to do? It was a dead end.”

1 in 325

Greg’s position, however, is hardly unusual, and that group in need of assistance is much larger than many realize.

Since May 2011, more than 1,500 homeowners in Illinois have received mortgage payment assistance, and about 54 percent of those mortgages paid by HUD and the Illinois Housing Development Authority — which administers the program — have been “underwater.” The number of homeowners accepted into the Hardest Hit program statewide increases just about every month.

And, according to Racki, just a handful of those that qualify even know about the program. More than 16,000, or one in 325, homes in Illinois are in foreclosure, according to RealtyTrac.

Not all of those mortgages would qualify for Hardest Hit funds; but because so many housing programs have come and gone, few struggling homeowners know about Hardest Hit, Racki said.

Plus, in the process of applying, homeowners also get other kinds of assistance they often didn’t know were available.

“Sometimes we’ll discover a need for financial or debt management counseling,” said Racki. “Generally, though, it’s career counseling. People are more interested in finding employment.”

That’s what took Greg so long to apply.

“I was hesitant to get in because people, if they don’t know you’re in a program like this, they’re angry about people who get bailed out,” said Greg. “And I don’t blame them.”

He said he held out hope that a new opportunity would come along.

“I believe I saw it on a morning news program, but I thought I’m still gonna get a job. Something’s gonna pop. It took a while until I told myself, ‘You’re treading water, face reality.’ It was either this, or I was going to be on the street.”

Instead, Greg continues to live in the modest home he purchased after a divorce. His kids are grown, and he said his biggest lament is not being able to send them extra spending money while they’re away at college.

Every morning he’s out of bed at 6:15 to let out his two dogs, and to continue the search for work.

“I’ve been willing to try a lot of different stuff,” Greg said. “The plan is to keep on looking for jobs, lower my expectations down to entry-level positions. I don’t know what else I can do — I don’t play the Lottery.”

‘I ran into a wall’

Stephen’s home stands proudly — in good repair, grass mowed, fresh paint — in a neighborhood on Aurora’s south side, just a few blocks from the Fox River. For decades, the previous owners likely walked to work in the factories nearby, but many homes in the neighborhood are now shuttered.

Stephen worked in Elgin’s U46 School District, assisting deans with tardiness and truancy, until his job was cut in a round of layoffs in 2009.

“It was great,” said Stephen. “I would have retired there. It was good money, and I helped out with coaching.”

So Stephen started searching for a new job, ideally back in the schools. He collected unemployment, but when that ran out, “that was it. I ran into a wall.”

Stephen started seeing a counselor at Family Counseling Services to help him in his job hunt, and she referred him to the Hardest Hit program.

At the time, he was already in court for foreclosure proceedings.

“I bought the house in February 2005 because I was going to be a dad. I wanted a house with a yard for him to play in. I was working at a different school district at the time, and I’d always been current with the mortgage.”

His son is 6 years old now, and Stephen said that if any good has emerged from his protracted unemployment, it’s the time he’s been able to spend being a dad.

“Kids need somebody. They need somebody to be home. That wouldn’t even be an option if it weren’t for this program,” he said. “We would have figured something out, but to get that time together when he’s young, there’s no price on that.”

In fall, his son starts school; and come December, the subsidized mortgage payments will run out. By then, Stephen hopes he’ll have found a job to make the full mortgage payment again.

“The mortgage companies, they say they’re working with people,” said Stephen. “It’s so impersonal, nobody listens to what you have to say. All it is is numbers. You may as well be dealing with a robot.”

Buying time

There is, perhaps, a therapeutic component to the Hardest Hit application process, at least the way it’s handled at Family Counseling Services.

“Everybody wants to tell their story,” said Racki.

Racki said the first thing he does with each client is give them a few minutes to breathe, to tell their tale of where they are and how they got there.

It just takes a quick search of Racki’s inbox for words of praise and gratitude.

“It’s a lot of ‘Thank you, we were going to be evicted in 30 days’; ‘I was able to keep my kids in their home’; ‘Thanks for buying me time,’ ” Racki said.

In the end, buying time is all the Hardest Hit program can do for homeowners until something — a new job, a bit of good fortune — turns up.

But the relief of knowing the roof will stay over their heads is often enough for now.

“Around Christmas, I called one lady who was approved and got to stay in her house,” said Cascio. “She was so elated, she just started crying on the phone. I cried, too.”

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