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Housing counselor on the go as loan troubles continue

Toni Johnson back in her office after a long drive from Manila.

Sun Advocate Reporter

With extended unemployment or wage cuts putting people behind on their mortgage payments, folks with "distressed" mortgages are looking for help with the complexities of renegotiating their loans. In eastern Utah, those who dial the state's 2-1-1 mortgage help hotline will be referred to housing counselor Toni Johnson.

She's a federal Housing and Urban Development-certified person who is responsible for steering people in the right direction to avoid eviction and foreclosure. She also trains potential home buyers on how to avoid getting into trouble in the first place. A bookcase in her office in the Business and Technical Assistance Center has a row of ring binders about three fee wide, each binder representing a course she took to earn her certification.

Johnson, who has 12 years experience in real estate, now works for the Community Development Corporation of Utah. This is a private, non-profit company that gets its funds from a federal Housing and Urban Development grant to the state. The company does not collect money from clients, and Johnson, though still licensed, can't make any money off real estate deals with clients.

However, the demand for mortgage help over the past few years has generated a supply of for-profit services. Johnson says that for the most part, there's nothing illegal about this. She does, however, resent the recent case of a lawyer referring a client to her no-charge service after he had collected his fee for counseling.

"The going rate is about $3,000," she says.

She conducts pre-purchase and post-purchase classes for home buyers at the BTAC and other sites ranging from Richfield to Moab, while her individual foreclosure counseling takes her from Manila in Daggett County to Blanding in San Juan.

That's a lot of windshield time, but in her travels she sees a lot of need.

"I see so many people facing foreclosure," she says. "Most of them don't want to walk away from their homes and they want to pay. We help them look for some kind of forbearance on the mortgage, and if that is not sustainable we'll help with an exit strategy."

Forbearance is any arrangement that is acceptable to both lender and borrower as a way of avoiding foreclosure. A deal could be a refinance at a lower rate, or a longer term of repayment, or a combination of factors affecting monthly payments. One lender was even willing to extend the payback to 70 years, she says.

According to HUD, some 468,000 households have modified mortgages since the Housing Affordable Mortgage Program went into effect.

Each one of those adjustments required attention to detail in filling out the required hardship forms. Johnson says she has heard of one applicant who sent in the forms and never heard back from the bank. As it turned out, he had missed filling in his birth date, so his application went into the dead stack. "They won't call you back if you make a mistake," she said.

This is why she spends time on the road for one-on-one meetings with people facing foreclosure or eviction. "It's tough gathering paperwork from Manila," she notes.

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