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Fighting Detroit's foreclosure crisis

Everyone has heard about the $100 homes in Detroit. What tends to stay under the radar is how many people are losing their houses altogether.

In Wayne County alone, experts predict there will be as many as 75,000 homes in foreclosure this year. That is an epidemic of dramatic proportions. The county government believes it will see about $44 million less in property taxes because of foreclosures and related housing issues.

RealtyTrac Inc., which follows foreclosure numbers, ranked Michigan as having the 7th highest foreclosure rate in the nation in October. A total of 16,468 Michigan properties received a foreclosure filing last month, an increase of nearly 45 percent from October 2008. One in every 275 households in Michigan received a filing notice in October.

People become paralyzed when they receive a foreclosure notice. They stop opening their mail. They contact a for-profit company for help.

Enter Jamele Hage and the Wayne County Mortgage Foreclosure Prevention Program.

The non-profit program provides comprehensive education, counseling, referral, intervention and other support services at no cost to Wayne County residents who are in delinquency, foreclosure or who have a mortgage product that the resident thinks may become a problem.

Hage, an attorney, was sitting next to County Executive Robert Ficano at a meeting in late 2007 when he whispered in her ear. The county needed a foreclosure program. And she should start it. It was either volunteer or be drafted, so this mother of three designed the MFPP. (She still serves as assistant corporation counsel for Wayne County and has nearly 20 years of legal experience.)

Ficano gave her $3,000 to start the program. They got a little office space on the 7th floor of a building on Temple, but they had to salvage office furniture from the basement. One staffer is a former client; she came in as a volunteer to help handle the overflowing voicemail and never left. Hage said the program is about results, not impressive titles or desks.

“We're putting our resources into the quality of the project,” Hage said.

Since its inception, the program has kept nearly 2,000 residents in their homes. Program administrators cannot help everyone they see; only about 45 to 60 percent can retain their homes. Hage said MFPP can give those who are unable to meet even a revised payment schedule a dignified way to exit their home and avoid having a foreclosure on their record.

“This is Neighborhood Stability 101,” Hage said.

What makes the MFPP unique is it has been set up – thanks to Hage's insistence – to be an almost entirely online application process. An Internet-based program lets people start their own casefile. Within hours, one of 48 housing counselors immediately take up the case and start filing paperwork to slow down or stop the foreclosure. Then, the staff analyzes the situation, calls the lender or bank and tries to mediate the situation and find a solution.

"It is, and always will be, a real team effort. I cannot do this without my team," Hage said.

If an applicant cannot use a computer, someone at the office will sit down with them at a desktop in the office and walk them through the process. Everything is completely confidential. No information is shared outside of the office.

Nationally, programs like this have home-retention rates of about 30 percent. Wayne County's rate is about 45 percent to as high as 60 percent. Wayne County's program has worked so well that the region's three other counties – Macomb, Oakland and Washtenaw – are starting their own programs based on its experience. Las Vegas is in the process of opening their own version of the program as well.

“The epicenter is Detroit. Now, it's like waves moving out,” Hage said. “There are new battlegrounds: Livonia, Northville, Canton, Grosse Pointe. … Every single person has an obligation to push this program to everyone you know.”

Why should anyone care about foreclosures in Metro Detroit? Because it is one more nail in the coffin. For every foreclosed house within a 10-block radius, your property values drop 1 to 2 percent. That affects the whole community. It makes neighborhood open to crime, abandonment. It strains then destroys area businesses.

For information, contact the Wayne County Mortgage Foreclosure Program at 877-693-6199 or (313) 833-2948. Its web site is here. Another resource is the United Way's 211 hotline – it is a referral number for social services and other assistance programs.

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