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Foreclosures rise in San Mateo County; local officials try to help

By Stephanie Soderborg | 15 Oct 2011

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Like an obnoxious neighbor, housing problems did not wait for Rose Jacobs Gibson to settle in to her position on the San Mateo County Board of Supervisors before they came calling. Her first two days in office, she remembers, the phone lines were flooded by elderly and low-income constituents who feared they would lose their homes because of changes to the federal Section 8 subsidy program.

Crowds wait in line to check in to the Oct. 1 San Mateo Count Foreclosure Resource Fair. (Photo: Stephanie Soderborg/Peninsula Press)

People did not understand how the changes would affect their lives, and the government was not doing enough to inform them, Jacobs Gibson decided. She resolved to help get the necessary information to the public.

Twelve years later, her cause remains the same – only now her work focuses largely on the thousands of home foreclosures in the county.

Early this month, her office hosted a Foreclosure Resource Fair, bringing together bank lenders, housing counselors and legal advisers to provide free advice to the nearly 200 people who crowded into a community center in Menlo Park. At the fair, the supervisor’s office began to distribute a 28-page guide for homeowners and renters, titled “Foreclosure Prevention.”

The guide provides answers to frequently asked questions, offers tips for avoiding foreclosure, suggests when not to keep a home and lists more than 60 local foreclosure assistance resources. Those resources include counseling agencies, alternative housing resources, legal aid and nonprofits that provide related services such as mental health counseling and food programs.

“One of the challenges is that people have such pride, and when it comes to their home it is just so difficult to have to admit that you are faced with whatever the problem is,” Jacobs Gibson said.

Supervisor Rose Jacobs Gibson addresses the attendants of the 2011 Foreclosure Resource Fair. (Photo: Stephanie Soderborg/Peninsula Press)

As measured by per capita figures, San Mateo County has weathered the nation’s foreclosure crisis better than many areas of California. Of late, though, the trend is more ominous. In September, 788 properties were under notice of default, forced auction or bank repossession in the county, up from 498 in August, according to RealtyTrac.com, which tracks foreclosures. Counties in the rest of the Bay Area saw a decrease over the same month.

Foreclosures can have a widespread effect on a community by depressing property values.

Encouraging homeowners to seek help is an important step, Jacobs Gibson said. Residents who work with housing counselors are 60 percent more likely to keep their homes and significantly modify their loans than those who do not seek help, according to an Urban Institute study.

“A lot of homeowners feel that they have to come up with money to seek help, which they don’t. Some feel that they can resolve the problem themselves, when they cannot,” said Bob Kane, a lawyer who volunteers at the free Community Legal Service in East Palo Alto. “For a lot of them it is just that they are not aware of the resources out there.”

Many people who attended the Oct. 1 resource fair agreed to be interviewed under the condition that they be identified by first name only, explaining that the forced loss of a home is a highly personal matter.

A homeowner named Jeff said he drove 90 minutes one way to attend the fair. Due to lack of counseling, he said, he did not recognize the severity of his situation until too late.  Now he is facing foreclosure. “I thought we had a minor bump in the road,” he said.

The fair and resource guide also help governments and community service agencies because, in some cases, not everyone is aware of where to refer clients, according to Jacobs Gibson.

Martin Eichner, the director of Project Sentinel, a HUD counseling center, said large agencies coordinate with each other already. But until now, Jacobs Gibson said, it was hard to find a single resource listing all the available services. “There will be a little more assistance now that people can provide with out having to try and think, ‘who do I call and where do I go,’” she said.

Laura Fanucchi, the associate director of Human Investment Project Housing, a nonprofit dedicated to home sharing and self-sufficiency, explained another benefit of the resource guide: “We cannot focus our time on creating this type of resource, yet it is so valuable in case management.”

Agencies that provide assistance to the best of their abilities bring peace of mind to many struggling clients. For Jeff, the counseling advice he received at the resource fair provided a sense of relief.

“We came in scared to death… at the potential of loosing our house at some unknown date in some unknown process,” he said. “We are able to come out today… and we’re pleased. We are coming out happy.”

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