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Thursday, April 5, 2012 - 5:00am

Foreclosure Help Goes Unspent

Struggling Georgia homeowners have tapped into a tiny fraction of federal money awarded to the state to help pay their mortgages. They money is available through a little-known program of the Department of Community Affairs called HomeSafe Georgia.

Georgia was one of 18 states to receive federal mortgage assistance funds in 2010.

Under the program, qualifying homeowners can receive up to 18 months of mortgage payments through a no-interest, forgivable loan.

Georgia Department of Community Affairs Deputy Commissioner Phil Foil says the state should have done more early on to inform people about the program.

He says they've only given out $4 million of more than $300 million in the pot. Foil says he’s trying to find ways the department can reach jobless or underemployed Georgians behind on their mortgages.

“We’re working with one of our sister agencies, the Department of Labor, on getting information through them to people who are receiving unemployment insurance benefits," he said. "Obviously, the biggest target market for this program is that group.”

Critics say overly-strict rules may have disqualified applicants. Homeowners, for instance, can’t be more than six months behind on their mortgages.

Karen Brown with the Atlanta Legal Aid Society says she's counseled many applicants who have been turned down.

“Here we are one year into the program and only, what, $4 million has supposedly been disbursed. That sounds like a real serious problem," she said. "They are not apparently getting the word out, so I think marketing is part of the problem, but also the strict criteria they have for eligibility for folks.”

Homeowners can receive up to 18 months of mortgage payments. But they can’t be in bankruptcy proceedings. Brown says that's a problem in Georgia, where lenders can foreclose on homeowners without appearing before a judge.

Bankruptcy, she says, is one of the few ways homeowners can stave off foreclosure.

Other people concerned with the program's lack of progress say the Department of Community Affairs should be working with grassroots groups to reach potential applicants.

Andy Schneggenburger, director of the Atlanta Housing Association of Neighborhood-based Developers, says credit counseling services around the state could walk potential applicants through the paperwork. And he says that's likely to result in more successful applications than the current Internet-only model.

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