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Advocates urge struggling homeowners in South Florida to seek help

Advocates for struggling homeowners say the first and often most difficult step in dealing with financial woes tied to homeownership is confronting the problem and finding the right help.

“People are afraid to call their [mortgage] servicers. When letters come in the mail, they put them in a drawer and don’t read them or they tear them up,” said Angelo Gonzalez, program director for economic independence at the Cuban American National Council, known as CNC Inc., a Hispanic human-services organization in Miami. “You have to face the problem you have.”

Gonzalez joined other community activists Thursday evening for a town hall meeting in the Westchester neighborhood to reach out to distressed homeowners.

A somber crowd of about 40 gathered at the West Dade Regional Library for a program put together by the National Council of La Raza with consumer advocates from organizations like Hope Inc. and Neighborhood Housing Services of South Florida.

A moderator asked how many people were struggling to keep their homes, and timidly the hands went up, first a few, then a lot.

One woman with a young daughter said she recently split with her husband and was anxious about being unable to make her mortgage payment.

An elderly Hispanic man said he had paid $7,000 to an attorney to fight foreclosure and got no help.

Another woman confided she recently had gotten a court summons in a foreclosure action and was petrified about what to do.

The takeaway from the 90-minute session: Take action and take charge of your plight.

As the nation’s foreclosure crisis drags into its sixth year, an arsenal of resources has been deployed to help ailing homeowners find a way out of a bad situation.

Among them are mortgage-payment assistance for those who’ve lost a job to options to restructure terms of a loan to refinancing mortgages to principal reduction. But eligibility and the suitability of such options varies from case to case. The challenge is finding a way to navigate the complex, bureaucratic landscape and figure out which option suits individual circumstances.

“There is so much out there, I don’t believe one person can keep up with it all,” said LeeAnn Robinson, chief operating officer of Neighborhood Housing Services of South Florida, which provides a variety of homeowner counseling services.

Beware of scam artists. Their deceptions can range from tricking homeowners into signing over their ownership rights to simply taking their cash and doing nothing. A crucial step is finding the right advocate: a reputable counseling agency that goes to bat for homeowners instead of ripping them off and compounding their financial hardship.

“As long as this crisis is happening here there will be predators trying to take advantage of you,” said CNC’s Gonzalez, urging consumers to ask questions before trusting someone who purports to want to help.

Find out if the agency is certified by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, said Robinson. A list is available online at www.hud.gov and click on Resources, then the link to HUD Approved Housing Counseling Agencies.

That HUD certification is a start, Robinson said, but a consumer’s vetting process should go further: “Find out who they get their funding from.” If it’s from HUD or another government agency, “they may be in a position to be more objective than one from private sources or a specific source.”

One key point: Avoid outfits that ask for payment, Robinson said: “You shouldn’t be asked to pay for anything but a credit report.”

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