If you need help

S.C. Help, or South Carolina Homeownership and Employment Lending Program has $295 million in federal cash available to help as many as 33,000 homeowners avoid foreclosure. The program, administered by the State Housing Finance and Development Authority, is available to the unemployed, underemployed and self-employed and has no household income limit to qualify.The program can provide monthly payment assistance for homeowners while they look for work and direct loan assistance to help bring their loan current and end fees and penalties. Transition assistance also is available for families whose homes cannot be saved.The loans are issued with zero interest and will be forgiven at a rate of 20 percent a year. After five years, if the homeowners stay in their homes, the balance will be forgiven.Call 1-855-435-7472 or visit www.scmortgagehelp.com for help.

COLUMBIA -- Some days, Linda and Alfred Gibbs meet briefly in the evening as he's heading home from working extra hours at his cleaning job and she's heading out for her 12-hour shift.

Linda, 63, and Alfred, 72, have been married 46 years, and now work all they can to save their Moncks Corner home from foreclosure.

It's the home they've lived in for 28 years, a two-story brick house with beige siding on a street named for them -- the home where they raised their four children. It's the same one they refinanced several times to take on some of their children's post-college debt, juggle medical costs for their ailing parents and pay off bills.

The recession and lingering aftershocks rattled their financial foundation. They've spent the last year and a half unsuccessfully negotiating with their mortgage company to lower their payments.

"We are up against a brick wall; no one is hearing us," Linda Gibbs said.

Nearly 23,000 South Carolina homes are in foreclosure now or have been repossessed by banks, according to RealtyTrac. That number doesn't include all of the homes that were repossessed and resold by the banks since the economic crisis began.

In September, the latest month for which data is available, 2,690 homes entered foreclosure, compared to 435 in September 2007 before the recession hit.

Hope on the horizon

Help is available for struggling homeowners.

In South Carolina, $295 million in federal cash is available to help as many as 33,000 families to avoid foreclosure through S.C. HELP, a program administered by the State Housing Finance and Development Authority. So far, more than 4,000 applications are being reviewed for approval, including applications for 142 homes in Berkeley County, 240 in Charleston County and 96 in Dorchester County.

The Gibbses are one of those families. Linda Gibbs said their home is only worth about $148,000, but they owe roughly $156,000. Their mortgage is $1,687 a month and their lender tells them they need to come up with $16,000 to get out of the situation, she said.

S.C. HELP began providing assistance in January to homeowners who were unemployed. The Gibbses could apply after the program was expanded in September to provide assistance to the underemployed and self-employed. Those who have trouble paying their mortgage because of a death in the family, a divorce or a major medical issue also can get help.

The program can give monthly payment assistance while homeowners look for work or become self-sufficient again and direct loan assistance to bring mortgages current by paying fees and penalties. It also offers transitional assistance for those whose homes cannot be saved. There is no household income limit for help.

The program is not, however, intended to help people with debt management or poor credit or those who have mismanaged their budgets.

State lawmakers also want to intervene. A public hearing is planned for 5:30 p.m. Thursday at the International Longshoremen's Association hall in Charleston for senators to take testimony from families in danger of losing their homes.

Sue Berkowitz, director of Appleseed Legal Justice Center, a nonprofit group, joined with the state Senate Banking and Insurance Committee and the American Association of Retired Persons to put on the hearing. She said the pain of losing a home is second only to the death of a loved one.

It ranks as among the most devastating financial events for any family, Berkowitz said. "For South Carolinians as a whole, it means home values are going down. It has almost a tsunami effect."

Lawmakers look to act

The Senate panel will evaluate a bill by Sen. Mike Rose, R-Summerville, intended to protect homeowners. Twenty-five senators, both Republicans and Democrats, have signed on to Rose's bill.

The bill would call on lenders to show homeowners "utmost care, honesty and loyalty," credit payments promptly and be accountable for lost paperwork on loan modifications and for failing to suspend the foreclosure process as a homeowner negotiates a lower mortgage payment, although much of his bill, as it's written now, has been addressed by the federal government.

Another portion of the protection Rose sought with the legislation has now been addressed by the state Supreme Court.

In May, the high court issued a temporary stop on home foreclosures so families can work on loan-modification plans with their lenders. The court order requires lenders to take a series of steps before moving ahead with a foreclosure, such as giving the homeowner an opportunity to respond. The lender would have to certify that they had taken the steps or pledge after 30 days that the borrower refused to participate, and after that time the lender could move forward on the foreclosure.

Lawmakers will have to evaluate what action has come recently to address the situation and what else South Carolina should do to provide remedies. Berkowitz said the state may want to duplicate the protections put in place by the federal government, such as a requirement that lenders assign one employee to work on a homeowner's case rather than multiple employees, so the rules can be enforced in the state without question.

Rose said lenders have a right to foreclosure on homes when individuals aren't paying their mortgage, but the state needs to protect homeowners from unfair practices, administrative errors and fraud.

"If we want to create more jobs and get the economy going, that's not going to happen when we're throwing people out of their homes," Rose said.

Sad stories

Berkowitz said the state legislation could build on ongoing state and federal court cases and congressional action. The power of people's stories, told at the upcoming hearings in Charleston and elsewhere, will help persuade politicians to take action against the financial institutions, she said.

"People are not sitting back and taking it anymore," Berkowitz said. She cited the recent decision from Bank of America to back off plans to charge more bank card fees.

In the meantime, Linda Gibbs works with S.C. HELP to persuade JPMorgan Chase and Co. to lower the family's mortgage payments. The couple's daughter and granddaughter moved back into their home, and their daughter's salary from a nonprofit agency helps ease the burden.

Linda Gibbs also has made two YouTube videos to plead her case and has written letters to James Dimon, her mortgage company's CEO, President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama, South Carolina congressmen, state lawmakers and Gov. Nikki Haley. Gibbs said Haley is the only one who wrote her back, even though the governor couldn't offer any help.

Linda Gibbs said her family's troubles started when Trident Medical Center cut back on the overtime hours she could earn as a patient service technician. Her husband retired from a job at the Naval Weapons Station and collects Social Security, but he also has worked part time in a janitorial job for the last decade.

"Making overtime was like a second job for me," she said. "Everything just crashed. It just crashed."

Foreclosure intervention

In addition to action on the state level, the federal government has stepped in to help families who are at risk of having their homes foreclosed on. Here are some details:

For more information, go to www.makinghomeaffordable.gov or call Homeowner's HOPE Hotline at 888-995-HOPE (4673).

Sources: www.whitehouse.gov, www.makinghomeaffordable.gov, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac

Reach Yvonne Wenger at 803-926-7855, follow her at twitter.com/yvonnewenger and read her Political Briefings blog at postandcourier.com/blogs.