Judging from the impressive accomplishments Home Repair Services has made in the fight against foreclosures, it is amazing that the non-profit does anything else at all.
But when it comes to “Retaining Our Homeowners,” Home Repair Services (HRS) covers a lot of bases. And what they cannot cover on their own, HRS staff members are happy to collaborate to get done.
That is why this year’s Liberty Bell Award, which goes to “a non-lawyer or non-profit organization that has made an outstanding contribution to the cause of justice or to advancing public awareness of the Constitution and our legal system,” recognized HRS for its “efforts to build value and dignity by equipping lower-income homeowners and their families for successful, sustained homeownership.”
Specifically, the Grand Rapids Bar honored the Financial Counseling Program, which HRS has run for the last nine years to help people facing foreclosure.
Attorney Elizabeth Lykins, Lykins Law Firm, nominated HRS. A past chairperson of the HRS board, she also currently serves as a trustee of the Grand Rapids Bar Association. According to her, the main reason she thought HRS was awardworthy is because the organization had the foresight to position itself to help stem the foreclosure tide long before it became a flood, setting up what she calls “an amazing infrastructure” that has grown as the problem has grown.
As Dave Jacobs, Executive Director of HRS for 28 of its 31 years, tells it, after the organization ran a successful capital campaign which helped them renovate their current building and consolidate their operations there, HRS took some time to reassess its future.
Wanting to give back to the community which had so generously supported their move, the HRS board decided to expand its existing programs. As they saw it, there were two gaps which needed filling.
The first was to confront the dangers of lead poisoning found in many homes. HRS set up a partnership with ClearCorps, which survives to this day as part of the Healthy Homes Coalition.
The other grew out of reviewing the trend to increasing foreclosures. The numbers were not big in 2001, but they were growing, and HRS saw a niche they should fill. In 2000, there were 558 foreclosures in Kent County; in 2009 there were 3,058. Between 2004 and 2009, about 8% of the homes in Kent County, or almost 15,000 homes, were foreclosed on.
Sensing that this was about to become a huge issue, HRS hired its first housing counselor in 2001.
Their choice was fortuitous. Tracie Coffman, with in-depth training
from NeighborWorks America, has been a dynamo in the battle against foreclosures. As Jacobs told the group gathered April 30 for the Law Day ceremony honoring HRS, “She is the rare social worker who has a head for finance ..., negotiating,... and a passion for interpreting rules and regulations to her clients.”
Coffman’s accomplishments cannot be overemphasized. Over the last nine years, HRS counselors have prevented more than 2,000 foreclosures. Coffman has personally been responsible for 829 of those preventions, but she now supervises a comprehensively-trained staff of five full-time
The program was so strong that, when a broad coalition of agencies and others formed the Foreclosure Response Team in early 2008 (see Grand Rapids Legal News issues for June 17 and December 9. 2009), HRS was chosen as the central clearinghouse for foreclosures assistance — even though, as Lykins points out, HRS is “not who you would traditionally think of.”
Remarkably, one call to HRS to schedule financial counseling may result in an appointment with one of six counselors at Lighthouse Communities in addition to the six at HRS. That level of collaboration is rare, and HRS has the technology to support it.
Coffman sits on the state foreclosure response board, helps train other housing counselors to get their programs started, and partners effectively with Legal Aid of Western Michigan. Jacobs referred to her as “the best known foreclosure intervention specialist in Michigan.”
Though prospects for a slowdown in the foreclosure prevention area seem dim, HRS still focuses on the other programs it has conducted for the last 31 years.
These include training homeowners in financial literacy, and holding other classes to make homeownership more sustainable.
The HRS building on Division houses a tool lending system that helps residents keep up the maintenance on their homes. In that same building, HRS offers for sale, often at a tiny fraction of what they are worth, materials for home repair and renovation, including doors, windows, carpeting, and cabinets.
There are income requirements for using the tool program and the store, but none for the foreclosure prevention counselor or classes.
HRS and Coffman’s team also have a commitment to educating clients who have undergone foreclosure so they can make better decision in the future. As the April 30 Law Day program for the award noted, “While not all foreclosures can be prevented, all homeowners come away from HRS better educated...”