PI Original Angela Caputo Friday November 20th, 2009, 12:21pm

Cook County Takes A "Huge Step" Towards Relieving Foreclosure Crisis

After the Cook County Board of Commissioners finally agreed
yesterday to fund foreclosure mediation services, housing advocates are
celebrating the move as "a huge step" towards stemming the problem.
As regular readers know, it's been a tough slog
for those community ...

After the Cook County Board of Commissioners finally agreed yesterday to fund foreclosure mediation services, housing advocates are celebrating the move as "a huge step" towards stemming the problem.

As regular readers know, it's been a tough slog for those community activists -- led by the group Action Now -- who've been pushing the county to devote more resources to mediation -- a proven method of staving off foreclosure. By a vote of 16 to 1, the board approved a $3 million budget amendment introduced by Comm. Earlene Collins (D) at the behest of Board President Todd Stroger and Cook County's Chief circuit court Judge Tim Evans (Republican Comm. Tony Peraica was the lone dissenter).

Like elsewhere in the state, foreclosures continue to pile up in Cook County.  During a roundtable on WTTW's Chicago Tonight yesterday,  MB Bank Vice President Thomas FitzGibbon noted that one of the biggest challenges in enabling mortgage modifications is getting through the daunting paperwork. "Having a neutral third party helping that consumer, helping that household, fill out the documents is an extremely important part of this whole process," said FitzGibbon, who also sits on the board of the non-profit Neigborhood Housing Services. "Seventy percent of the applications for this service -- for this help that we send out to consumers who we know are in trouble -- never comes back." Watch his remarks (full video here):

Once up and running, Cook County's program will help fill this void. Action Now is hoping that the initiative will follow in the footsteps of a successful mandatory mediation program in Philadelphia. In highlighting the program, the New York Times explained earlier this week how it works:

Under the rules adopted by Philadelphia’s primary civil court, no owner-occupied house may be foreclosed on and sold by the sheriff’s office before a “conciliation conference,” a face-to-face meeting between the homeowner and the lender aimed at striking a workable compromise. Every homeowner facing a default filing is furnished with counseling, and sometimes legal representation [...]

The Philadelphia program forces an outcome by bringing together all the principals in one room. If the mortgage company proves intractable, the homeowner has the right to request mediation in front of a volunteer lawyer serving as a provisional judge, who relays recommendations to the program’s supervising judge. If the judge finds that the mortgage company is not acting in good faith, she can hold the house in limbo by denying permission for a sheriff’s sale.

If all goes according to plan, early next year Cook County homeowners will have the chance to begin working directly with judges and their lenders to modify loans.

In the meantime, if you live in the Chicago area, check out the "How Not To Lose Your House Party" being hosted this Sunday by WBEZ and Vocalo.org.  The event is being held in conjunction with the station's extensive series on the local housing crisis.

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