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Advocates See New Hope For Restoring Pa. Mortgage-Assistance Benefit

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Tom Edwards fears he will lose his home now that funding has been cut for Pennsylvania's mortgage-assistance program, HEMAP. (Credit: Pat Loeb)

Tom Edwards fears he will lose his home now that funding has been cut for Pennsylvania’s mortgage-assistance program, HEMAP. (Credit: Pat Loeb)

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By Pat Loeb

PHILADELPHIA (CBS) – Tom Edwards used to drive a bus for the Eagles but now, elderly and virtually housebound by a series of strokes, he gets his football fix watching NFL highlights in the living room of the Wynnefield home he’s owned for 40 years. He worries, though, that the simple comfort he’s earned after a lifetime of work could be taken from him. Though he had paid off his original mortgage, he took out a home repair loan a few years ago. He fell behind in his payments when he got sick and the lender is threatening to foreclose.

“I don’t want to lose my house,” he says, blinking back tears.

Edwards is a textbook case of the benefits of Pennsylvania’s Homeowners Emergency Mortgage Assistance Program (HEMAP), created in 1983 to provide temporary loans to homeowners facing foreclosure through circumstances beyond their control but likely to begin resuming mortgage payments eventually. A $1,500 loan was all Edwards needed to pay off the lender and have his security restored. Edwards lost out, though, when Governor Corbett cut funding for HEMAP, last year.

Housing advocates are hoping a new cost-benefit analysis of HEMAP will convince the state to restore funding and they say last week’s settlement of a national foreclosure fraud lawsuit would allow the state to do so without impacting the budget.

The analysis by The Reinvestment Fund found that during the final three years of the program, the state spent about $38 million on HEMAP but that the money generated savings of $480 million and kept some 6,100 Pennsylvanians from losing their homes.

“The savings accrue to so many different folks,” says Rachel Blake of Regional Housing Legal Services, “the homeowners; their neighbors, who didn’t have their property values go down because they lived near a foreclosure; local governments, which didn’t have to process foreclosures or lose tax revenue and saved on police and fire calls to abandoned properties; and the lenders themselves.”

HEMAP was widely recognized for preventing foreclosures. Moody’s Investors and the Federal Reserve Bank recommended both had praised it.

Nonetheless, Governor Corbett slashed HEMAP funding to $2 million, last year, and has proposed zero funding in the budget he proposed last week. His spokesman Eric Shirk declined to comment specifically on HEMAP though he said budget cuts, in general, were part of the governor’s “commitment to reducing the size of state government.” He referred questions about HEMAP to the Housing Finance Authority, which declined comment.

Rick Sauer of the Pennsylvania Association of Community Development Corporations, though, says last week’s foreclosure fraud settlement represents a new opportunity to fund HEMAP that didn’t exist before.

“This huge settlement happening right now changes the dynamic,” he said. ” I think there’s clearly an opportunity to re-fund the program at a significant level.”

Five banks, last week, agreed to pay $26 billion to 49 states to settle a lawsuit charging that the banks had evicted homeowners using false, improper or incorrect records. The Penna. Attorney General’s office estimates the state’s share will be about $266 million. A spokesman says most of the money is earmarked for principal reduction, refinancing and payments directly to homeowners who’ve been foreclosed on, but $69 million dollars can be used at the state’s discretion. He declined to comment on whether the state could or would use the money for HEMAP.

Sauer is optimistic. “The reports show it would be a very wise investment,” he said.

Edwards is afraid to be hopeful. He thought his troubles were over, last year, when HEMAP approved his request for a $1,500 loan, only to later inform him the money was no longer available because funds had been cut.

“They approve it, then take it back, get my hopes up, then take it back,” he said. “I’ve had three strokes and they do me this way.”

He wipes a tear away.

“It’s not easy.”

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