Project helps homeowners avoid foreclosure

Project helps homeowners avoid foreclosure

URBANA — When a homeowner is behind in mortgage payments and receives a summons for a foreclosure proceeding, the common reaction is, "I haven't paid. I will lose," according to one Champaign County judge.

"It doesn't help that the other party is a billion-dollar corporation. What hope is there?" asked Champaign County Circuit Judge Mike Jones.

For homeowners facing the daunting process of foreclosure, you don't have to go at it alone. There is hope.

That was the message legal aid attorneys and judges delivered at an event Thursday at the Champaign County Courthouse.

The Land of Lincoln Legal Assistance Foundation, which runs legal clinics for low-income residents and seniors around the state, including in Champaign, launched the Legal Help for Homeowners Project last fall. Since September 2012, the organization has helped about 400 homeowners by negotiating new loans, modifying their existing loans, counseling them on their cases and more.

The project received funding — $4.5 million over three years — from the office of Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan.

Madigan, along with other state attorneys general and the U.S. Department of Justice, obtained a $25 billion dollar settlement with several of the nation's largest banks who were accused of various fraudulent practices.

"The best approach for the homeowner falling behind in payments or who thinks they might fall behind in their payments is to contact us immediately," said Angela Tucker, staff attorney with Land of Lincoln.

The sooner, the better because the more options and the more help attorneys will be able to provide, she said. Even so, attorneys were able to help a client even after a judgement of foreclosure had been made.

"They have done a wonderful job. They know what they are doing. They are committed," Jones said of Land of Lincoln staff.

"This program ... is a plus from the court's standpoint," said Sixth Judicial Circuit Chief Judge Dan Flannell.

Of the approximately 80 foreclosure cases that appear before Jones on a given afternoon, about three to five of those cases will have lawyers representing homeowners, he estimated.

Some come in expecting the judge to advise them on their cases.

"I can't help a homeowner defend a foreclosure any more than I can help a bank prevail in their efforts to foreclose against them," Jones said.

Even more "disturbing," according to Flannell, is when a foreclosure hearing is being held and the resident shows up, but he or she sits quietly in the back of the court room watching the proceeding.

"They're embarrassed, afraid," Flannell said.

Given the "reams and reams" of paper involved in a foreclosure case and the complicated documents involved, Flannell said, an attorney can help homeowners sort through the information but also help communicate with the banks.

"This is uniquely the kind of proceeding where a lawyer can be of benefit," Flannell said, adding that they should be aware of an Illinois Supreme Court ruling that took effect May 1.

Rule 114, according to Land of Lincoln staff attorney Mallory Littlejohn, requires banks to file what's called a loss mitigation affidavit, in which banks have to outline certain efforts taken, such as a repayment plan or loan modification, before filing the notice of foreclosure.

In 2012, there were 560 foreclosure filings in Champaign County and 125 in the first quarter of 2013. Vermilion County had 327 foreclosure filings in 2012, DeWitt 77, Douglas 82, Edgar 58, Ford 62, Moultrie 38, Macon 307 and Piatt County 62 filings in 2012.

"This isn't a Champaign County problem or a Macon County problem. It's a national problem," Flannell said.

For assistance, Land of Lincoln runs a hot line, (855) 601-9474, accessible from roughly 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Friday.

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