Home Help, Close to Home

Our guide to resources for Las Vegans soaked by the housing bubble

As the recovery drags on, Las Vegas seems stuck. Unemployment is 13 percent. Housing prices have fallen to 1998 levels. In October, more than 5,000 Clark County properties were in foreclosure, equivalent to about one in every 162. Sixty-one percent of residential mortgages are underwater. The mortgage delinquency rate here is double the national average.

The one bright spot—a spike in the number of homes sold compared with last year—is attributable to the crash in prices. That’s good for first-time buyers with jobs and investors with cash, not so good for homeowners trapped in homes that only seem to lose value.

But for the thousands of homeowners in the Valley trapped in houses they can’t afford—or just don’t want to pay for because they’ll never see an upside again—there is help. An alphabet soup of it: HAFA, HARP, HAMP, ERA, MHA, FMP, etc. Here’s a guide to finding what you need.

Start at home

The city of Las Vegas feels your pain. Every time someone in town walks away from a home and the pool turns rancid or squatters set up camp, it becomes City Hall’s problem. Hence the ordinance passed Dec. 7 that threatens banks with fines, or jail time for execs, for not taking care of abandoned properties.

“By golly, we got their attention now,” Las Vegas Councilman Steve Ross says.

To prevent the situation in the first place, the city has set up a new website, FreeHomeAidNV.org, that should be your first stop if you’re looking at foreclosure or considering walking away. The site is a portal to connect homeowners with state and federal agencies that provide assistance. Fill out the information at the site and you’ll be connected with HUD-approved counseling agencies that specialize in everything from short sales to foreclosure fraud.

It’s one-stop shopping. City spokeswoman Diana Paul says the idea behind the site is that too many Las Vegans were paying for help. “We put you in contact with the right people.”

One of the agencies you may connect with is Housing for Nevada (HousingForNevada.org), a nonprofit that emphasizes buyer education but also helps those in foreclosure. It’s often impossible for borrowers to talk to an actual person at their lender, which is why a counselor is a good idea. They have leverage. At their Rebuild Southern Nevada Expo in November, Housing for Nevada put banks and borrowers together in the same room and some lucky homeowners got decisions on their foreclosures on the spot.

Neutral party

Receiving a foreclosure notice is a low point, but it does come with one benefit: You qualify for the state’s Foreclosure Mediation Program (Foreclosure.NevadaJudiciary.us). For the bargain price of $200, homeowners get the services of a professional mediator who serves as a neutral party between borrower and lender. The idea is to come up with a solution acceptable to both, whether that’s a loan modification, a short sale or a foreclosure. Signing up for mediation forces your lender to sit down at the table with you, and it also forces lenders to do their homework, says Christine Miller, a foreclosure attorney with the Legal Aid Center of Southern Nevada’s Consumer Rights Project. “The lender has to prove [its side],” Miller says. “If they can’t do that, they can’t foreclose.”

It’s more common that you might think that lenders can’t produce the paperwork the first time around, Miller says. She attributes that to automated procedures and the heavy caseloads with which banks are dealing; the less charitably inclined might say it’s evidence of fraud in the system. Believe what you like—the fact is, it’s good to have help dealing with the big guys.

Your mouthpiece

Speaking of help, the Legal Aid Center of Southern Nevada (LACSN.org) is a good place to get assistance from an attorney if you can’t afford one. You’ll have to meet income requirements to qualify, but as Miller notes, the bar for help with foreclosure is somewhat flexible because most people involved in the process, by its nature, have or had assets and are or were employed. “It’s not the typical legal aid,” she says. Don’t be afraid to ask.

Even if you don’t qualify, the Legal Aid Center offers weekly classes on foreclosure open to everyone. Check the website for a schedule. And the center’s Ask a Lawyer program makes free legal advice available to all from 9 a.m. to noon on the second and fourth Tuesdays of each month in the Civil Law Self-Help Center at the Regional Justice Center, 200 Lewis Ave.

The bottom line

If financial help is what you seek, there are a few good resources to get it.

Nevada’s Hardest Hit Funds (NevadaHardestHitFunds.org) disperses federal grant money aimed at keeping people in their homes. Qualified applicants facing imminent default receive up to $1,000 monthly for nine months toward their mortgage. The money is paid directly to the lender, and if you stay in your house for at least five years after receiving it, you don’t have to pay it back. HUD’s Home Affordable Unemployment Program (MakingHomeAffordable.gov) offers similar relief if you’ve lost your job.

HUD’s Home Affordable Foreclosure Alternatives program offers a way out, and $3,000 toward relocation, as an alternative to walking away from a mortgage you can no longer afford. You get a short sale or a “deed in lieu” foreclosure and are off the hook for the balance.

If you rent, and your landlord is foreclosed upon, the city of Las Vegas has an Emergency Relocation Assistance program to help pay for moving expenses, utility deposits and application fees for residents who qualify based on income. Check the city’s foreclosure information website, FreeHomeAidNV.org, for details.