By now, it’s pretty well known that the foreclosure crisis is no longer limited to lower-income households. Large numbers of middle- and upper-income homeowners are falling into default, too. But a new report from the Woodstock Institute points out that (.pdf of report available here), in many parts of the Chicago region, more affluent households are far less likely than lower-income homeowners to get specialized counseling about the foreclosure process—and that could potentially shut them off from some valuable resources.
Consider, for instance, the case of a middle-income household falling into foreclosure because of a job loss (as opposed to a low-income household headed for foreclosure because of a predatory loan’s skyrocketing interest rate). “There may be opportunities there to renegotiate, and foreclosure may be more preventable,” says Geoff Smith, Woodstock’s vice-president. But without consulting the agencies monitoring the chaotic foreclosure process, middle-income homeowners might not find their way to those options, Smith says.
The Woodstock Institute and others have established that homeowners who have sought out counseling have a higher likelihood of staying in their homes than those who don’t get counseling. That makes even more significant the statistics from the Woodstock report, “On the Foreclosure Front Lines: Surveying the Capacity of HUD-Certified Housing Counseling Agencies in Illinois,” which was released Monday. In parts of the city and suburbs where low-income households are concentrated and where foreclosure problems predate the crisis of the past two years, the report notes that there may be seven or more counseling sessions per 100 foreclosure filings.
But that ratio doesn’t hold true in suburbs with a higher concentration of middle-income households. In Algonquin, for instance, where 476 homes were foreclosed in 2008, there were no counseling sessions, Smith says. In Crystal Lake, there were 310 foreclosures and no counseling sessions. Bolingbrook, with 700 foreclosures, had only six counseling sessions, while McHenry, with 411 foreclosures, had only one counseling session.
Smith acknowledges that middle- and upper-income homeowners may have established resources of their own to draw on—friends and family who can provide not only financial support, but also legal advice or help in networking toward a solution. Still, says Smith, foregoing counseling can put these people at a disadvantage in the foreclosure process. “They don’t know everything that might be available to them,” he says. “They need to have the right representation as they’re going through this.”
Smith also notes that most counseling programs are available from agencies oriented toward helping lower-income people with their housing problems. Before the foreclosure crisis hit, says Smith, “there was not as strong a network of agencies” helping middle-class people homeowners. The large-scale solution—creating and publicizing more foreclosure-counseling agencies in middle-income areas—can’t happen overnight. And as Mary Ellen Podmolik of the Chicago Tribune wrote on Tuesday, the Woodstock report details a massively over-burdened foreclosure-counseling network, already incapable of handling the crushing caseload.
Nevertheless, for middle- to upper-income homeowners in crisis, the lesson may be that you don’t have to try to navigate the treacherous waters of foreclosure alone. There’s help available, even if it’s slow in coming. “Just building awareness of that is a beginning,” Smith says.