Foreclosure help is on the way

Legislative panel’s approval is final step in helping homeowners negotiating with lenders

The New Hampshire Housing Finance Authority recently reported that while foreclosures are declining, the slow pace of improvement means “it will still take quite a long time for the housing market to achieve a sense of ‘normalcy’ again.”

Similar reports about slow employment growth means that many homeowners in New Hampshire, struggling with too-high mortgages and stagnant incomes, will continue to seek relief to avoid foreclosure.

Help for these beleaguered homeowners may be on the way.

Legal clinics and free or low-priced consultations, training for lawyers, and an information hotline are part of plan awaiting approval by a legislative committee. The last hurdle to implement the plan, funded by a portion of New Hampshire’s share of the national mortgage settlement against national lenders, is a vote by the Joint Legislative Fiscal Committee to release the funds.

The New Hampshire Bar Association, in conjunction with two other legal services agencies and the New Hampshire Housing Finance Authority, would use more than $1 million in funding each year to offer services and train lawyers to advise or represent people who are either at risk of losing their homes or struggling with the legal and financial fallout of foreclosure.

The funding, through the New Hampshire Department of Justice, comes from the state’s share of a multimillion-dollar national settlement over questionable lending and foreclosure practices by the nation’s largest banks.

The Bar Association is taking part in a coordinated plan approved unanimously by the governor and Executive Council in September. The plan would fund efforts by the NHBA’s Pro Bono Referral Program, Reduced-Fee Referral Program and Lawyer Referral Service Program, along with New Hampshire Legal Assistance and the Legal Advice & Referral Center, to provide affected homeowners with legal information and access to a range of legal services.

“This proposal would give homeowners coordinated access to legal help and enable us to provide increased support and training for attorneys, so we can build the capacity of the private bar to assist homeowners struggling with foreclosure,” said Ginny Martin, the Bar Association’s associate executive director for legal services.

Attorney General Michael Delaney presented a three-year, $3.5 million plan for helping distressed homeowners to the Executive Council on Sept. 19. The council approved one-year contracts with the NHHFA, NHBA Legal Services, NHLA and LARC, with the option to renew after nine months.

The contracts are part of a larger DOJ proposal for New Hampshire’s portion of the National Mortgage Settlement, which includes the creation of a new unit within the AG’s office to investigate potential fraud cases, particularly against large financial institutions that have harmed New Hampshire citizens, Delaney said.

NHBA’s Pro Bono, Reduced-Fee and Lawyer Referral Service programs will collaborate with NHLA and LARC to assist homeowners at all income levels through housing counselor referrals, clinics with free legal consultations around the state, and direct referrals to attorneys.

The Legal Services Program at NHBA also plans to hire a staff attorney to provide support and expertise, as well as coordinate training for attorneys taking on foreclosure-related cases.

Although the National Mortgage Settlement payment would support this initiative, rather than the state’s general fund, additional approval for the DOJ to accept and expend the non-budgeted funds is needed from the Joint Legislative Committee, which was scheduled to vote on the plan in late October.

Kristen Senz is associate editor of New Hampshire Bar News.

Categories: Opinion