Few experiences can be as distressing as getting notice of a home foreclosure, and many homeowners have no idea where to turn for help.
Banks and mortgage companies often are willing to discuss options, and numerous agencies offer assistance as well. But for every legitimate and helpful service -- for instance, federal programs exist for people who purchased their homes through Fannie Mae or Freddie Mac, for people 62 and older, or for consumers in other specific situations -- there are dozens of scams that sound like they will reduce debt but that, in fact, will simply shift it, with added costs.
A mortgage conciliation program in Allegheny County began as the brainchild of Sheriff William Mullen, and Common Pleas Judge Michael McCarthy oversees it. Since last year, 1,250 homeowners have been notified about the availability of conferences with mortgage lenders aimed at allowing people to retain their properties when possible. More than 40 cases have been heard so far.
A similarly successful foreclosure prevention program operates in Philadelphia and at least four other Pennsylvania counties have devised their own.
Twin bills in the state Legislature -- Senate Bill 222 sponsored by Republican Stewart Greenleaf of Montgomery County and House Bill 1042 sponsored by Michael McGeehan of Philadelphia -- would require courts in all 67 counties to offer conciliation conferences before any single- or two-family homes could be sold at a sheriff's sale.
The bill applies only to owner-occupied homes and not to rental or commercial property. Homeowners would not be required to use the service, but if they want it, mortgage holders would be obligated to participate.
There can be associated costs, but not necessarily. Philadelphia hired masters to hear the cases, but in Allegheny County, sitting judges picked up the extra work.
Under the bills, the state Supreme Court would develop model guidelines for the program statewide. The Allegheny and Philadelphia county programs both could be replicated but, even if that occurs, the statewide implementation won't come in time to help homeowners who already have been notified about impending foreclosure.
Nonetheless, the crisis in the home mortgage industry has shown that far too many homeowners don't understand their rights and options when faced with a tragic foreclosure. A permanent, statewide process that is ready to handle them as they occur is one more way to help as many Pennsylvanians as possible stay in their homes.