The pace of local foreclosures could ease now that a North Charleston nonprofit that assists struggling homeowners has received the largest grant of its kind in the country to connect lawyers with families in danger of losing their homes.
Family Services Inc. has been given access to $1.7 million. The money will help link attorneys with homeowners who contend they were victims of a variety of transaction wrongs, ranging from predatory lending to receiving a loan they didn't sign up for.
Also eligible are homeowners who find themselves in a bad way for other reasons, such as suffering from their own poor money management choices or facing adjustable rate increases. Thousands of people in South Carolina are eligible.
Debbie Kidd, who oversees default counseling for Family Services, said the grant from the federal National Foreclosure Mitigation Council illustrates how large the need is among at-risk homeowners in the state.
"It's never too late to come in for help," she said Tuesday.
By most accounts, the Lowcountry's mortgage troubles are getting worse by the day. Nearly 1,450 homes fell into foreclosure in Berkeley, Charleston and Dorchester counties during the final four months of 2008. And though the hardship is widespread across economic classes, it has hit working class families especially hard since they are more likely to see work hours cut or suffer job losses.
As envisioned under the grant, homeowners facing foreclosure would be linked with an attorney from a variety of public assistance or pro bono legal sources to help them during the crisis. There is no income cutoff for those who can seek the group's assistance, and the group is not confined by geographic conditions. Someone doesn't have to be in full default to seek assistance, either.
Family Services has a long history in the area and has been approved as a housing counselor by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. The legal assistance grant comes on top of the group's other grants that focus on work as default counselors.
Among the groups taking part in the new program are South Carolina Legal Services, which has nine offices in the state, Charleston Pro Bono Services and Appleseed Legal Justice.
Marvin Feingold, director of Charleston Pro Bono Legal Services, said the group opted to become part of the effort because a key focus has always been low income people and housing. Negotiation, not litigation, is the goal, he said.
Cases have so far been slow in forming, but Feingold said he expects the pace to change greatly as funds from the Obama administration's housing recovery efforts get released.
Kidd said that for anyone facing a housing issue, getting access to lawyer can keep a lot of problems from becoming too big to handle.
"We want to keep people in their homes," she said, "and make it affordable for them to stay in their homes."