Ohio law students offer residents foreclosure help

COLUMBUS (AP) — Anna Lou picks up the phone in a small basement room at Capital Law School’s downtown Columbus campus.

“Hi, is this Lydia?” she asks after introducing herself. “I’m calling about your foreclosure.”

In this beige windowless room, young law students with promising futures encounter a harsh and foreign reality firsthand.

As part of a novel program, they are trying to help homeowners keep their homes.

Capital Law professor Peggy Cordray launched the pro-bono program in the fall after wondering how students could help in the foreclosure crisis.

“I thought the program would be helpful to the students, but also to the homeowners,” she said.

For the 50 participating students, the experience can be eye-opening.

“You read about how everyone is living beyond their means, but that hasn’t been the case with the people I’ve spoken with,” said Thomas Siwo, a 26-year-old student from Xenia who has worked with 15 homeowners. “Many of these people have been in their home 15 or 20 years and are in their 50s or 60s.”

For the 160 homeowners who have gone through the program, the experience can help smooth a rocky road.

“I didn’t realize I needed the things I needed until Capital called me,” said Kenneth Mattox, who is trying to keep from losing the Groveport home he bought in 1992. “It definitely made a difference because if I didn’t have those documents to take with me, they would have thrown my modification out.”

For those, like Cordray, who are interested in helping people stay in their homes, the program provides an opportunity to tackle one of the biggest problems in the foreclosure process: the lack of homeowner participation.

For all the efforts devoted to keeping foreclosed homeowners in place, the track record for most programs is discouraging. One reason, lenders and advocates agree, is that few homeowners pursue a settlement and fewer still see the process through.

Homeowners might think their case is hopeless and ignore the problem until it’s too late, or they simply might be overwhelmed by red tape.

Last year, for example, 9,649 foreclosure cases were filed in Franklin County. Of those, about 1,800 homeowners, less than 20 percent, pursued mediation through the county’s Mediation Foreclosure Project.

About half of those 1,800 actually showed up at mediation. And about half of those who showed up experienced some positive outcome such as a loan modification, said Eileen Pruett, the project’s administrator.

In the hopes of raising those numbers, Pruett worked with Cordray and others to design Capital’s program.

“One of the things we find is homeowners are very intimidated in even coming to court,” Pruett said. “After they file their request for mediation with us, we thought Capital could walk them through what they could expect.”

Capital students are prohibited from dispensing legal advice. Instead, they tell homeowners how to prepare for mediation. Such guidance ranges from the abstract (“Remember, mediation is not a trial”) to the practical (“Park in the Fulton Street garage, on Fulton between Third and High”).

After going through the process on Friday with Siwo, Dennis Borowski said he felt better.

“I found it really helpful,” said Borowski, whose east Columbus home went into foreclosure in December. “This is complex, it’s a challenge. And I’m not a lawyer.”

Cordray is working on packaging the program idea to offer other law schools. But first, she might modify it to include follow-up questions. Now, students speak once with the homeowners and never learn the outcomes of the cases.

As Siwo puts it, “After every call, I wonder what happened with that person.”

But there is at least some evidence that the program is making a difference.

Recently, Mattox received a call from his lender, Fifth Third Bank, saying he qualified for a loan modification that he thinks will allow him to keep his Groveport home.

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