April 23, 2014

Elyria
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Urban League’s Wright honored for helping those facing foreclosure

ELYRIA — Homeowner advocate Mindy Wright can empathize with clients facing foreclosure.

Wright, Lorain County Urban League housing director, said despite making additions, she and her husband are unable to refinance the two mortgages on her South Amherst home into one because of the housing market collapse. The experience gave her a small taste of what her clients face.

“I share that story with a lot of my homeowners to let them know, hey, you can do everything right and things in life just happen, and you have no control over that,” she said Tuesday.

For helping 240 clients facing foreclosure remain in their homes in the last year, Wright on Oct. 13 received the Whitney M. Young Jr. Excellence in Housing Counseling Management Award from the National Urban League. Young was a national civil rights leader and former Urban League president.

Wright was singled out from 97 Urban League affiliates, 41 of which offer housing assistance. Many of the other affiliates are in bigger communities.

George Lambert, Lorain County Urban League president, said the award is significant given the relatively small size of the Lorain County branch and showcases the extensive housing services offered clients.

“We’ve done the deep dive in terms of just really giving them some very qualified services,” he said.

The collapse in 2007 has substantially increased the number of foreclosure clients seen by Wright and Larisa Staruch, a foreclosure intervention specialist for the county Urban League. They served 160 clients in the 2008-09 federal fiscal year, which runs from Oct. 1 to Sept. 30. In 2009-10, 185 clients were served. In 2010-11, 230 clients were served. About 90 percent of clients are from Lorain County, but the League also serves Erie, Huron and Medina counties.

Wright said they would have a lot fewer clients if the government approved principal reductions of homeowners who are “underwater” — they owe more than their house is worth — at current market rates.

Edward DeMarco, acting director of the Federal Finance Housing Agency, acknowledged in April that reductions could save taxpayers $1.7 billion on the 60 percent of mortgages controlled by Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae, the government financing agencies that back private lenders with taxpayer money. But DeMarco contends write downs could lead to costly “strategic defaults” by homeowners.

Wright said a small percentage of homeowners might try to purposefully default to not pay money they owe, but believes DeMarco’s concerns are exaggerated.

“Do I think it will lead to massive strategic default? No. At least not in Lorain County,” she said. “That’s really what we need to get everyone’s home values back up to where they were before the crisis started.”

Wright also said she believes the $25 billion mortgage fraud settlement in February between the federal government and the five major banks let the banks off easy given their predatory lending and packaging of mortgages into risky financial derivatives triggering the 2008 Wall Street crash.

“The settlement is only for the five largest banks,” she said. “That doesn’t cover everyone who’s been harmed.”

Wright, a 33-year-old mother of two, has worked for the Urban League since 2003. She got involved with housing issues for the Urban League after hearing about predatory lending and realizing it would lead to massive foreclosures. Wright said it took about two years for the Urban League to be certified by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development as a housing counseling agency.

While often feeling overwhelmed by the foreclosure prevention workload, Wright said she’s proud of what the Urban League has accomplished and the rapport it’s built with homeowners.

“Anyone can be in this situation,” she said. “I hear it with almost every homeowner. ‘I never thought I’d be in this situation.’ ”

Contact Evan Goodenow at 329-7129 or egoodenow@chroniclet.com.