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DuPage event aims to help homeowners in trouble

Mike Zurek (middle) banking divisiIllinois Department Financial Professional Regulatigreets mortgage relief seekers as they enter auditorium DuPage Government Center Wheaton.

Mike Zurek (middle) of the banking division of the Illinois Department of Financial and Professional Regulation greets mortgage relief seekers as they enter the auditorium at the DuPage Government Center in Wheaton. | Jon Cunningham—For Sun-Times Media

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Updated: August 27, 2012 12:08PM

“It’s all because I’m unemployed,” said the woman who asked not to be identified by name.

As the 50-something woman waited to see a counselor Saturday at the DuPage County Administrative Center Auditorium as part of Gov. Quinn’s Mortgage Relief Project, she related a story becoming all too familiar in recent years.

Trained as a chemical engineer, she was already under employed as a lab technician when she was laid off in 2009.

Not being able to find work since then, she’s gone through her savings and, several months behind on her mortgage payments, she finds herself in danger of losing her home to foreclosure.

So she waits to see whether the program has any help for someone in her position.

“I really don’t know,” she said.

About 150 other area residents looking for counseling joined her looking for help for problems ranging from foreclosure to refinancing to what to do when their mortgage is higher than the value of their house.

The program has been in existence since 2009, when the state began to react to the first wave of the housing crisis.

“In 2009 we just proceeded to put this thing together,” Mario Pantoja, director of Consumer Services for the Illinois Department of Financial and Professional regulation, said.

Pantoja said that this was the 33rd such local meeting the program had put together.

The key element of the counseling service is that it brings to the consumer representatives of the top five mortgage lending firms in the state: Bank of America, Chase, Citybank, Wells Fargo, and Allied (formerly GMAC).

“We’re giving people tools,” Pantoja said. “Education is a big component of what we do.”

Depending on their situation, mortgage holders may qualify for several different types of programs, among them refinancing their loans, negotiating less costly terms to pay back their delinquency and stay in their houses, or accessing federal stimulus money to help catch up on their mortgage payments.

Then there are some who, for whatever reason, are just too far behind to catch up. For them, the counselors help find what Pantoja called a “good exit strategy” that allows them to have something less damaging than a foreclosure on their credit record.

One option is to negotiate a sale of the home where the sale price might not cover the remaining balance on the loan, but will satisfy the lender that it has been amortized.

Another option for those with no hope to keep their homes is to simply turn over the deed in lieu of payment and walk away from the situation.

Yet another is a form of payment called “keys for cash,” where a lender pays the mortgage holder a negotiated sum to turn over the keys.

“People are scared when they’re in this situation,” Bank of America representative Pat Holder said. “They don’t want to open the mail.”

But Holder stressed that the odds of helping a homeowner in trouble were far better if they contacted the company shortly after starting to miss payments.

“The later they are in their mortgage payments,” she said, “the harder it is to help them.”

State Rep. Mike Fortner (Rep-West Chicago) stressed that one advantage of having representatives from the lending institutions available was that they often only functioned as facilitators of mortgages, while the actual investment was made by another entity, such as Fannie Mae or some offshore bank.

The banks were often the most knowledgeable about who the actual lender was and what programs were available to troubled homeowners, he said..

“This is a great service,” he said of the counseling effort.

DuPage County Board member Dirk Enger noted there was still about $50 million of federal stimulus dollars available for mortgage modification programs and faulted both the federal and state governments for not getting the word out to the public.

Enger also advised people seeking counseling to be persistent with the people who did the counseling.

“When you leave here, make sure every single on of your questions are answered,” he said.

He also urged them to not settle for an 800-number, but to make sure they got a direct contact.

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