Georgia's foreclosure prevention program gets overhauled 

But getting info to homeowners trying to stay in their houses isn't easy

PACKING UP: Changes to HomeSafe program could mean fewer people seeing their belongings placed on the curb by sheriff's deputies.

Joeff Davis/CL File

PACKING UP: Changes to HomeSafe program could mean fewer people seeing their belongings placed on the curb by sheriff's deputies.

Last December, state officials quietly made changes to a program backed by hundreds of millions of dollars in federal cash aimed at keeping people from losing their homes to foreclosure.

Changes to that effort, known as HomeSafe Georgia, took effect with little fanfare earlier this month. People at risk of seeing their belongings placed on the curb by sheriff's deputies because they fell behind on home payments could be forgiven, particularly if they haven't heard about the fixes. Homeowners once rejected by the state program could now be eligible thanks to the loosening of requirements. But legal advocates who helped spur the changes are calling for greater awareness so that thousands of people can remain in their houses.

When the foreclosure meltdown cratered the country during the Great Recession, the U.S. government responded by allocating $7.6 billion in nationwide financial aid to keep homeowners in their houses. Eighteen states and the District of Columbia received federal cash based on its respective population and how hard the foreclosure crisis struck its residents. Georgia was given $339.3 million. The state needed to spend it before Dec. 31, 2017, or else give back the remaining funds.

The only problem: That cash was slow getting out the door. Federal officials scolded Georgia for not allocating cash to homeowners in a timely fashion.

Part of the reason many people were initially turned away from HomeSafe was due to strict eligibility criteria. To tap the cash, applicants had to meet an exhausting list of requirements. First off, they could only be currently unemployed or underemployed. If a homeowner was current on their mortgage before losing his or her job, or is currently six months or more behind, they were ineligible. Likewise, homeowners were out of luck if the foreclosure or bankruptcy process had already begun. People who fell behind on their home payments because they were ill or lost a loved one who was the breadwinner also wouldn't benefit.

Last August, CL reported on the laggard pace of spending cash on HomeSafe. At the time, officials at the Department of Community Affairs, the agency that oversees the foreclosure relief process, said they were open to changes to the program, but thought better marketing and awareness would most improve their efforts. In December, the DCA and feds agreed to make key eligibility changes. Under the new guidelines, unemployed or underemployed people who are less than one year behind their payments became eligible. The limits on cash now available to help men and women have been raised as well. In addition, the DCA created two new programs that allow people to remodify their mortgages if they've experienced hardships.

These changes could help keep a lot of people in their homes, says Kristen Tullos, an Equal Justice Works fellow at Atlanta Legal Aid, the nonprofit law group that helps people navigate the complicated process. But the organization is concerned by the lack of publicity surrounding the program changes. A DCA spokeswoman told CL the agency was rolling out "the multi-year marketing program, including advertising, events and other outreach" and lending institutions would help spread the word about HomeSafe — and the more than $274 million Georgia needs to allocate before the feds claw back the cash. And there's still a need — according to RealtyTrac, more than 4,200 Georgia homes were in foreclosure in January.

"There are still a lot of foreclosures taking place in Georgia every month," Tullos says. "Certainly those homeowners who are at risk of losing their homes could save them because of HomeSafe. It could mean the difference between a family keeping their home or not."

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