The national foreclosure settlement over mortgage loan servicing and foreclosure abuses by the nation's five largest mortgage services was intended to provide relief to homeowners and establish new homeowner protections for the future. Settlement documents lay out clear guidelines for the use of the funds, including the recommendation for support of nonprofit housing counseling services.
Utah's share of the settlement was $21.9 million. Gov. Gary Herbert and Deputy Attorney General John Swallow both included housing counseling among their recommendations for the use of settlement dollars. Regrettably, however, none of this money was appropriated by the Legislature for competent home-buyer education and foreclosure mitigation counseling in the Beehive State.
It is true that some funds from the settlement were used for housing and law enforcement programs; appropriations to the Attorney General's Office for financial fraud investigations ($2 million) and to various homeless service providers ($1.75 million) and the Pamela Atkinson Homeless Trust Fund ($250,000). These will go a long way toward meeting community needs.
Unfortunately, none of the above uses of settlement funds will address the needs of the thousands of Utahns who currently face or have been through the gut-wrenching process of foreclosure, or the nearly 20 percent of Utah homeowners who are underwater on their mortgages (CoreLogic).
Housing counselors can help. Utah's housing counseling agencies are among the highest-capacity producers in the foreclosure-prevention counseling industry. Just last year, local housing counseling agencies served more than 6,700 Utah households.
When Gov. Jon Huntsman allocated $1.8 million in economic stimulus dollars to housing counseling in 2009, these agencies responded by helping 1,292 families prevent foreclosure over a two-year period, saving the community more than $100 million, according to estimates by the Joint Economic Committee of Congress.
Additionally, numerous research studies over the past several years have shown that counseling from a HUD-approved agency helps families achieve modifications and stay current on their mortgages at higher rates than homeowners without counseling. Housing counselors don't just help currently struggling homeowners; they also provide first-time home-buyer education so that a new generation of homeowners will be able to avoid problems down the road.
As the time for setting budget recommendations arrives at the State Capitol, we are hopeful that our leaders will come to recognize the critical role that housing counseling and home-buyer education play in helping homeowners avoid and recover from foreclosure, understand their finances, and take control of their lives.
The crucial need for housing counseling funding has gone unmet for too long. Many of Utah's housing counseling agencies have begun to strategically plan for the winding down and eventual termination of vital services due to lack of adequate, consistent funding. We need to maintain Utah's statewide housing counseling network so that families in all stages of home ownership will have access to trusted, credible, and unbiased home ownership education and counseling.
There are many demands on our state's budget, and many worthy programs that must compete for limited resources. However, with reports that our state ended the fiscal year with a $98 million surplus, the opportunity to maintain what remains of the network of high-performing housing counselors has once again presented itself, and it's an opportunity we cannot afford to waste.
We urge our lawmakers to revisit the issue of housing counseling funding and make good on the original intent of the settlement windfall. Utah homeowners deserve nothing less.
Afton January of Salt Lake City is program coordinator for Utah Housing Coalition, a statewide nonprofit that promotes affordable housing.