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Stories making their way through Georgia media seem to suggest state officials are slow in spending $339 million in federal funds to stave off foreclosures.
But when you look deeper into the story, it seems the state, which has until 2017 to spend the funds, is dealing with a confluence of factors that are hard to cure. The housing market and personal finances are in disarray across the region.
Phil Foil, deputy commissioner at the Georgia Department of Community Affairs, said the Treasury awarded 18 states, including Georgia, millions of dollars from the Hardest Hit Fund to prevent foreclosures. Georgia took those funds and started the HomeSafe Georgia program, an initiative that offers homeowners, who are unemployed through no fault of their own, up to 18 months in mortgage payment coverage.
"We pay directly to the servicer," Foil said. The homeowners are required, if they can, to pay something toward the mortgage so they remain vested in the property.
Foil candidly discussed new ways to reach out to potential borrowers and did so after news coverage seemed to suggest the funds were sitting on the sidelines with parties not doing enough to get the word out. While everyone wants the funds to be spent as expediently as possible, the recent criticism is not the full story.
Foil's office currently faces a convergence of factors — namely dependence on other agencies to promote the fund, borrowers who don't qualify for the program and borrowers who may still be unaware that the fund even exists.
"If you compare us to other states (using the funds), we are about in the middle of the pack getting the dollars out," Foil said.
The program's outreach efforts have largely been dependent on other agencies and organizations that work with consumers and the unemployed to get the word out about the offerings, Foil said. To expand its scope, the program is now working on other outreach methods, including direct mailings to reach homeowners who may qualify.
"We are evaluating the outreach methods that we have been relying on up until this point," Foil said. "A lot of times we get people who apply for it, but they really do not qualify since it's not an unemployment issue." With foreclosures taking a longer period of time, Foil said the program is rethinking its cut off date for qualification by extending the rule that says a borrower can be no further than six months behind on a loan to nine months behind.
In the past year, the program managed to commit $23 million in funds, and it has several years of funding left. Foil said the program is guarding its mission and making sure the funds are appropriated in a way that meets the program's criteria.
"We didn't want to just throw money out the door," Foil said. "We have to answer for this program. These are taxpayer dollars. We have to make sure that people who are going to get assistance are qualified and meet the criteria, so at the end of the day when we are going through auditing, we can show how effective the program has been."