GARY | In Lake County alone, 24,000 homes stand empty and abandoned, the result of mortgage foreclosures.
There is a heavy concentration of these residences in urban areas because of population density, but the vacant homes dot almost every municipality and unincorporated area, said Sandy Harkin Bleau, housing counselor with the Northwest Indiana Reinvestment Alliance, formed more than four years ago and based in Hammond.
On Friday, the NWIRA partnered with the city of Gary and the Urban League of Northwest Indiana at the Genesis Convention Center to provide foreclosure assistance for homeowners who are behind on their mortgages.
The 10-hour session was one of several community-based events the nonprofit organization provides each year to help people from Indiana and Illinois before mortgage holders foreclose on their homes.
In addition to community events, the NWIRA provides individual counseling in the Hammond office located in the Southmoor Apartment Hotel at 5948 Hohman Ave.
One of more than 600 nationwide sub-grantees of the National Community Reinvestment Coalition, the NWIRA focuses on fair housing, fair lending practices and investing back into the community, said Amparo Vivian White, Hispanic outreach coordinator. The NWIRA is also a counseling agenda certified by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
“When the housing bubble burst, we heard so much in the media about subprime mortgages and people getting into homes they couldn’t afford,” said Harkin Bleau. “Once in a blue moon, we have someone come in with that kind of problem.”
However, today foreclosures result from loss of income due to layoffs, illness, divorce or death in the family, she said.
One of the NWIRA’s major missions is to help homeowners avoid the myriad scam artists who are preying on vulnerable people, White said.
These scammers convince desperate homeowners to pay them instead of their mortgage companies to “fix the problem,” she said. “Don’t pay anyone to help you get a home mortgage modification. We are paid by HUD.”
This is especially prevalent in non-English speaking communities.
“The Spanish-speaking are being taken advantage of,” said White, who translates for clients.
One of the most lucrative mortgage assistance scams involves a post card that has a Fair Housing seal on it and looks as though it comes from HUD, said Harkin Bleau, who also is a Realtor.
“The stories are heartbreaking,” she said. “Those predatory lenders who were issuing subprime mortgages are now raking in money with these schemes.”
The NWIRA is tied into the Home Affordable Refinance Program started by the federal government in 2011. The program was recently revised to make it more accessible to homeowners, she said.
The agency, headed by executive director Jean Ishmon, has formed a bankers’ council composed of representatives from the various area bank.
Not only are struggling homeowners vulnerable, Harkin Bleau said, they also are embarrassed.
That’s why many who attend community events in Indiana reside in Illinois and vice-versa, she said.