Betty Villegas' new project with Pima County grew out of the foreclosure crisis. The project's goal: to help residents save their homes and find out about affordable housing and fair financing. The housing program manager for the county's new One-Stop Housing Assistance Center works with the Don't Borrow Trouble program and nine local housing counseling agencies certified by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, in the El Banco building at 801 W. Congress St. For more information, call 624-2947, or stop by between 8 a.m. and 5 p.m., Monday through Friday.
Tell me about your history working in this area.
When we were working on those programs early on, the issues then were that Hispanic home-ownership rates were so low, and HUD really wanted that to change. It became a national initiative. ... People had to get educated and get the right mortgage product. Our focus was to market to the consumer, not market to the Realtors or to the lenders. We don't feel responsible for what happened. All of our borrowers, all of the people we worked with, were educated. If they got assistance from us, a down payment from us, our foreclosure rates are below 2 percent. A lot people try to blame the problem on the first-time-homebuyer programs, but really, it was about greed, and people who piggybacked on a good thing and made it into a bad thing. We saw people we'd start to counsel, and then the sub-prime lender would come and say, "You don't need that." For a while, we saw (more) people who didn't want our down-payment money. Loan officers didn't need it to improve the loans. We did a lot of advocating and tried to warn them that there's something going on here.
Then the crisis occurred. What did you do next?
That's when we started our Don't Borrow Trouble campaign. When it hit, we weren't surprised, but we were surprised by the impact, although I think we were more prepared than other communities, because we saw it coming. From the beginning, (Pima County Supervisor) Richard Elías brought housing counselors together to address this as a community issue. That's when I had the direction to start working on foreclosures in 2008.
How do you get the word out?
We capture from the Recorder's Office every foreclosure notice that gets filed, and we send those homeowners a letter. We direct them to Don't Borrow Trouble and ... find out what the issues are. Were they scammed through a loan-modification program? Are they just in default and haven't gotten a notice yet? But at the time we send them a notice, they've usually already exhausted their default. We want people to know that there are programs out there that help before it gets to that point.
The foreclosure crisis isn't over.
It's not. The first batch was the sub-prime (mortgages). People could never afford those loans, and now we are seeing some five-year resets on adjustable-rate mortgages, but that's not the bulk: Right now, it is jobs. Even some of the people we helped early on and were on the right track, all of sudden, they lost their jobs, and now they are back, and we have to help them again.
How do people get scammed because of foreclosures?
Because the Recorder's Office files a foreclosure, it becomes public record. People pay for these lists, and then they do mailings. They do what we do, but for another reason. ... We try to do as much outreach as we can, but we are still not reaching everyone. This building is a good starting point, and with the new sign up, we are seeing people come in.
Are there programs available that people don't know about?
Save My Home AZ has a program for people who are on unemployment and meet the state's criteria. There is money out there to help them make their payment if they are two months behind. You can go to the site and see if you are eligible, and if you need more help, the program will pay (for) two years while (the homeowners) are looking for a job.
Besides foreclosures, what other help can people receive?
Some of our focus is recovery—where people can come and look for affordable rentals and help with home improvements. We have resources here. We also have classes on credit repair and on financial fitness and financial health. That's the next leg of this problem. The foreclosure problem is still a problem, but now we also have a recovery problem.