Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Foreclosure outreach aims at saving heartache

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Naomi Brookner⁄The Gazette
Montgomery County code inspector Julia Thom reviews a foreclosed property in Montgomery Village.
The latest in a series of county-sponsored foreclosure workshops drew about 30 struggling homeowners to Germantown on Saturday.

One of them was Juan Zamora, 43, of Rockville, who left wishing he had sought help sooner.

If he had asked for help a year ago maybe things would be different, Zamora said. Maybe his home of 11 years wouldn’t be facing foreclosure. Maybe he wouldn’t have to file for bankruptcy. Maybe he would be able to pay for his son’s college. Maybe his wife wouldn’t have filed for divorce, and maybe he wouldn’t be living in a basement.

Zamora, a Rockville homeowner, enjoyed some heady days in 2005 and 2006 as he got his real estate license and made a killing during the market boom, doubling and tripling the $40,000 salary he had made as a passport clerk with the federal government.

He bought three more houses, one in North Potomac and two in Florida, putting all of his savings and home equity into them. But then the real estate market in Florida collapsed and trouble began. Within a matter of months, the money was all gone, he said.

Now, more than $1 million in debt, the Colombian native, a 20-year U.S. citizen, sees no choice but to declare bankruptcy.

‘‘You feel like you lost your hope, that you are nobody. ... Before I was feeling a little appreciation for myself and for my family. I feel like I am a loser in this country. I feel like a fool sometimes.”

County and state leaders are hoping that with more outreach, they can help prevent others from suffering the financial damage and heartache Zamora is facing.

And to that end, HomeFree-USA, a nonprofit counseling service, opened shop in Gaithersburg on Monday with state and county funding. It is the only HUD-approved agency handling foreclosures in Montgomery County, said the William Waller, the group’s executive director.

What HomeFree-USA can do that homeowners cannot is navigate the muddy waters of loss mitigation departments at lenders, places that can be ‘‘like running into a brick wall” for mortgage customers, he said.

‘‘It might take a couple of visits, it might not be worked out at that particular time, but it will be done,” Waller said.

Its set-up is simple. Two desks and two chairs in a small office at 610 E. Diamond Ave.

In its first day, the group started paperwork on about 20 clients. One was referred by the City of Gaithersburg, which is paying HomeFree’s $3,600-a-year rent for space in the offices of The Family Services Agency Inc.

With the one-on-one sessions easily taking two hours per client, said foreclosure mitigation counselor Carmen Castro-Conroy, the office will be to handle about 12 to 15 clients per week — about half the rate of weekly foreclosure activity in the Gaithersburg, Montgomery Village and Germantown area alone earlier this year, according to data a May report on county foreclosures.

A bigger space for HomeFree-USA is under construction in Gaithersburg. The nonprofit hopes to move in by September.

Another part of the county’s answer could come by tapping into the county’s, said

County Council President Michael J. Knapp (D-Dist. 2) of Germantown said the county should also be looking to a new affordable housing initiative, which will receive a $54.8 million boost beginning July 1, for answers in addressing the foreclosure crisis. The initiative will be debated by the council in the next few weeks.

There is already a need to ‘‘fundamentally realign” the county’s approach to affordable housing, he said, and the issue is inseparable from the foreclosure crisis.

‘‘That’s one of the things we need to sit down and really look at: How do we get the most bang for our buck?” Knapp said.