Paterson Pulse

Groups Helping To Fight Foreclosure

Paterson Pulse — Monday, April 1, 2009

By Chris Neidenberg

PATERSON —Those fighting foreclosure have allies standing ready with resources to help, a county-led panel recently assured worried homeowners.

Yet legal and social service professionals attending the March 25 Foreclosure Mediation Workshop, convened by the Passaic Vicinage Advisory Committee on Minority Concerns, stressed they can be of little help unless homeowners sensing trouble: 1.) Initiate steps to protect themselves at the earliest possible moment, and 2.) Keep all required financial and legal documents within easy reach, if needed for any counseling session or proceeding requiring them.

About 50 people attended the two-hour forum in the county freeholders' meeting room off Grand Street. Passaic County Superior Court Judge Miguel De La Carrera. committee chairman, moderated. The panel's eight delegates outlined options and took questions, including Mayor Jose "Joey" Torres.

Other groups represented included New Jersey Citizen Action, Northeast New Jersey Legal Services, the New Jersey Judiciary Foreclosure Mediation Program and Passaic County Board of Social Services. A table offered various brochures.

"What we (committee) arc largely trying to do is make the court system understandable to everybody," De La Carrera said of his group's continuing mission, which has included offering Patersonians advice on expunging minor offenses from criminal records.

City residents facing foreclosure, as part of an ongoing national crisis, might find the time is right for increasing one's understanding of the state judiciary. This, given that Superior Court is a major venue for resolving cases.

According to Torres, court records indicate that (as of March 25) 1,447 city properties were "in foreclosure." while about 200 more were "in the final process" of nearing this drastic legal action.

Foreclosure results when a property owner's inability to continue financing a mortgage requires vacating a site.

Foreclosures en masse, in a major city like Paterson, have the ripple effect of shrinking the city's property tax base. Another negative is creating blighted properties, left unsightly and in disrepair, by former occupants lacking financial resources to maintain them.

Jonia Coso, Northeast Legal Services of New Jersey attorney, who represents low-income homeowners, and Marie Faber, civil division manager for Passaic County Superior Court, strongly advised those seeking their services come prepared immediately upon recognizing they're having serious trouble keeping up with monthly payments.

Audience members were warned those failing to take such steps could see foreclosure staring them in the face before they know it.

The death knell comes when the Passaic County Sheriffs Department schedules the sale of a foreclosed property — requiring occupants to leave.

"It's critical that, when a homeowner faces foreclosure and wants to take advantage of our services, they come to us at the earliest opportunity," urged Faber, who helps persons seeking mediation fill out the required forms.

"Also, it's important to bring any of your closing documents or documents used during the foreclosure process." she said. "It really assists us when (homeowners) come with the documents."

Panelist and Passaic County Chief Assistant Prosecutor Jay Mc Cann handles fraud cases bilking homeowners — which can cause foreclosures.

He cited keeping proper track of all records, starting from the closing, as critical if homeowners run into any problems. That includes if one suspects being victimized by white-collar fraud. "How many people have read a deed," Mc Cann asked the audience.

"How many people have read a mortgage note from beginning to end? I don't even do it."

"Take all the paperwork and put it in boxes," the lawyer urged. "Save it forever, because if something happens, you want to have all the documents in hand.

I've been told the biggest problem, with these foreclosures, is nobody has any of the documents."

Panel delegates spent much time discussing the state courts' Foreclosure Mediation Program. It provides housing counselors, lawyers, and mediators for qualified homeowners.

One panel member heavily involved is attorney Shari Seffer. who represents banks in mediation throughout the Garden State.

Seffer stressed that, while she does advocate on behalf of banks losing money from delinquent borrowers, she wants to help those needing legitimate relief.

"New Jersey has developed a very valid, very useful system for you to use to help you live in your home." said Seller, citing complete honesty as essential to a successful outcome. "Even though we represent the banks, we're not bad people. If you're nice to us. we're nice to you. We're really trying to help."

Yet Seller stressed that only homeowners who have enough money on hand can succeed. Otherwise, "There's nothing to negotiate, nothing to modify."

Persons at that stage were advised to consider seeking bankruptcy in the federal courts.

Earl Grosser, of Clifton, asked Seffer if a state-handled mediation can be conducted over two days — if more time is needed. Absolutely not, she replied.

"I have limited resources," Seffer said. "Mediation is a one-shot deal. We'll do everything in our power — my attorneys will be there for six hours — if necessary. But it's a one-day session."

Enerio Montesino, a city resident and local real estate agent, praised the state mediation program for offering hope to homeowners in tough circumstances.

"I've seen two clients receive mortgage reductions." he told the panel. "I can tell the audience it's a good idea to go with you."

In Paterson, Torres cited a two part strategy. He said the city is trying to stop foreclosures and battle its aftereffects.

Torres noted that the city employs foreclosure counselors throughout the week to try aiding occupants in danger, and will also use state funds in its Neighborhood Stabilization Program to rehabilitate blighted, residential properties.

The mayor did not rule out arranging "short sales (where lenders agree to buy back a home nearing foreclosure for less than the money owed)" using city funds.

"What we're attempting to do is work with the state Departments of Community Affairs and Banking in a collaborative effort to preserve some (foreclosed) properties," explained the mayor.

He noted that the city's risk assessor and appraiser first evaluate sites to see if they are worthy investments. Additionally, they are evaluated for lead paint content. Torres explained the goals include developing these tracts to help revitalize the local economy and create jobs using organized labor.

"We will continue to rehabilitate the home." he pointed out. "Once rehabilitated, we will offer it to residents under a program helping first-time home buyers."

Help is available from a variety of sources:

Economic Security Center, New Jersey Citizen Action. Newark — 1-888-829-3711. Group will perform a free needs evaluation.

New Jersey Judiciary Foreclosure Mediation Program — 1-888-989-5277

Northeast New Jersey Legal Services, Paterson — 1-973-523-2900. Provides legal aid to low-income residents.

Superior Court, Passaic Vicinage, Paterson — 1-973-881-0100. Offers foreclosure resources.

Episcopal Community Development — 1973-430-9986. Offers free housing counseling.

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