IN THE LAST 12 MONTHS, more than 3,000 Philadelphia homeowners took steps to end a nightmare, by participating in an innovative program designed to slow down the foreclosure rate.
The Mortgage Foreclosure Diversion Program is a city-sponsored, court-designed program that brings lenders and homeowners to the table to work out a plan to save homes set for foreclosure. As a result, 1,400 city homes that had been due to be foreclosed were saved. Now, the program may expand throughout the state and around the country.
Last week, the National Conference of Mayors recognized Mayor Nutter for the city's role in making the program work; mayors from New York, Los Angeles, St. Louis, Miami and other cities are working to adopt the program in their cities. And later this month, the Pennsylvania House could vote on a bill, by Rep. Michael McGeehan, that would make the program statewide.
We hope the state and other cities that are about to adopt this appreciate just how remarkable this program is, for a number of reasons. For one thing, it has relied on the tenacity of Judge Annette Rizzo, who runs the program, in forcing a collaboration among the city, housing counseling agencies, legal services, and lenders. That's no small thing.
If similar programs are going to succeed, they'll need to adopt the key aspects of the city program, including:
_ It's mandatory: When a notice of foreclosure is filed, the court notifies the homeowner and the lender, requiring their presence at a mitigation meeting. The federal Hope Now hot line proved that voluntary programs aren't as effective.
_ It relies on pro-bono work: Lawyers who repre-
sent the homeowner at the mitigation meeting are volunteering their time. This is such a critical aspect of the program that we hope the state and the American Bar Association officially encourage their members to participate.
* Outreach is key. The city has put up $2 million to get the word out to the homeowners at risk for foreclosure, and to operate a hot line (215-334-HOME). Given the devastating price to whole communities that foreclosures exact, that's a wise investment, but times are tough. That's why the federal government should allow neighborhood-stabilization money to fund foreclosure prevention. A successful consumer-based program like this needs all the support it can get. *