Homeowners in Lycoming County who are missing mortgage payments and face foreclosure are going to get the opportunity to delay losing their American dream.
Court judges and officials, attorneys and housing counselors have recognized the economic plight many homeowners in debt face and the confusing and frightening jungle of legal and banking jargon of which they must make sense.
Now they are doing something about it.
"There are about 300 residential mortgage foreclosures filed each year," said county Judge Richard A. Gray, who is hopeful a new mortgage foreclosure diversionary conference opportunity through the courts will help delay foreclosures and provide alternatives for those facing the loss of their home.
The court, the county Law Association, North Penn Legal Services and representatives from STEP Housing Counseling Services have designed and created the diversionary conferences that are scheduled to start by the end of the month or in August, he said.
"We believe all parties filing mortgage foreclosures in our courts would be better served by having a one-time opportunity for a pre-trial settlement conference," Gray said.
Free legal services
Those foreclosure cases are not reviewed by the court prior to that, he said.
All that is typically reviewed is the balance the defendant owes with interest. A hearing is held usually four to five days before the property goes up for sheriff sale, Gray said.
"We're going to give them the opportunity to obtain free legal representation at these conferences," Gray said. "It will be done through a new pro-bono program instituted by North Penn Legal Services with the cooperation and support of the county Law Association."
Whenever a private owner-occupied mortgage foreclosure is filed, those in default will be given an opportunity to request a court conference shortly after the complaint is filed, Gray said.
Missing a couple of mortgage payments and seeing the foreclosure notice is enough of a gut-wrenching proposition. What is worse is the lack of answers and alternatives and the fact that many banks and attorneys representing the banks and holding companies are out of state. They are inundated with their own mortgage filings piling up on desks, Gray said.
"We believe the diversionary conference may level the playing field and give those facing foreclosure time and alternatives to losing their home," county Court Administrator Kevin Way said.
The program is for all owner-occupied mortgage foreclosures filed on or after July 1.
At the conference, which will be scheduled by Way's office, the mortgage company representative is required to be available to discuss alternatives to foreclosure for the applicant, Way said.
Clearly explained alternatives
"We're hopeful at the conference the defendant will be given clearly explained alternatives to foreclosure and the recently created federal programs that might offer alternatives to losing a home," Gray said.
The county Bar Association attorneys, numbering about a dozen who have volunteered to provide the pro-bono representation at the conference on a rotating basis, will go before the judge who will prepare an appropriate order based on whether an agreement is reached at the time of the conference.
Pro-bono means the attorney is not asking for a fee during the conference and he or she will attend the hearing with the client, Gray said.
In most cases, attorneys and representatives will seek a mutually acceptable agreement, according to Jennifer Heverly, an attorney with North Penn Legal Services.
Those conferences are designed to expose the individual under threat of foreclosure to all alternatives prior to what may be eventual sheriff sale of their property, he said.
A STEP housing counselor will be available prior to the conference to provide details on available alternative programs.
Asked whether the conferences will significantly interrupt the case as it passes through the civil system, Gray said it should not.
The first set of meetings is anticipated to begin either later this month or in August, Gray said.
The program will be reviewed during its progress to correct any problems and to determine eventual long-term viability, he said.
Chance to provide service
Michael Collins, an attorney and president of the Lycoming Law Association, said he and other association members have been honored by the state Bar Association for their many examples of pro-bono work and this is a chance to continue that service record.
"It gives attorneys who would not necessarily get involved a chance to become involved," Collins said.
He commended Gray, Judge Dudley N. Anderson, Heverly and Way for their work on the foreclosure diversionary conferences.
"We're hopeful the conferences will occur within 30 days of the request by the defendant," Gray said.