New program aims to help Delawareans who have faced foreclosure [video]

 Gov. Carney spoke to the coaches of the Fresh Start program. (Zoë Read/WHYY)

Gov. Carney spoke to the coaches of the Fresh Start program. (Zoë Read/WHYY)

A new program in Delaware offers coaching to individuals who have suffered loss stemming from the 2008 recession.

Michelle Thomas and her then-husband earned well over $100,000 a year between each of their successful jobs, and they had started to build their dream home.

Then the recession hit.

After settling into their new home, they both lost their jobs within six weeks.

Thomas’ husband never found a high-earning job, and suffered depression and addiction. The marriage didn’t survive, their cars were foreclosed and their dream home went into short sale and was sold for half of what it was worth.

For the past few years Thomas has been forced into the rental market.

“My home and family were my anchor and my faith—thank God I still had that, because at the end of this that’s all I had left,” she said.

But now Thomas is part of a program that she believes will get her on the right track.

The Delaware State Housing Authority and the state’s financial empowerment program $tand By Me have launched a program to assist families and individuals who have faced foreclosures, job loss or other financial difficulties deriving from the financial crisis that began in 2008.

“I can’t tell you what its meant to me to know there’s something out there that can help me get the leg up I need to go back to being a homeowner, because that’s what I need in my life to feel anchored, because without a home of my own I feel like a ship with no rudder, I feel like I have no base to go back to,” Thomas said.

During the height of the foreclosure crisis Delaware had around 6,500 to 7,000 foreclosure filings per year—a jump from the average 2,500. At the end of 2016, Delaware cut that number by half to 3,000.

“We feel like we are back at levels of pre-crisis. We do know, however, there are homeowners that went through foreclosure or some kind of housing loss that are still recovering,” said DSHA Director Anas Ben Addi.

“So we may not be putting new foreclosures in the system, but we still have homeowners who went through the system we still need to assist, and that’s why we have the program Fresh Start.”

Fresh Start, announced at a Tuesday press conference, offers free financial coaching to help Delawareans get back on their feet and take steps toward home ownership again.

“A lot of people lost good paying jobs, and now they’re reemployed in lower paying job,” said $tand By Me director Mary Dupont. “Delaware is second in the nation today in foreclosure. So while a lot of other states have recovered from the housing situation, people are still losing their homes and that has to do with not making enough money to maintain their financial stability.”

The program is open to everyone—there are no income limits, but the applicant must prove they’ve suffered some kind of catastrophe or credit burden, loss of house or severe credit hits during the housing crisis.

The program holds the coaches responsible for the trajectory and progress of the homeowner.

The statewide program is funded by money DSHA received from a settlement with Bank of America last year. DSHA received $11.5 million to fund various programs, and $1 million has been dedicated to Fresh Start.

$tand By Me collaborates with nonprofits to offer personal financial coaching, with four coaches statewide devoted to helping Fresh Start clients. Goodwill, NCALL Research and Interfaith Community Housing of Delaware also have coaches participating in the program.

“It’s not just about financial issues—it starts to get very personal, and emotional, and mental health, and physical health, everything is related when you go through a trauma in your life,” Dupont said.

“Our coaches are really therapists. They’re working with people to regain their footing, to get a handle, to have hope that things can change, they’re going to be able to get back on their feet, they can become home owners again, they can reestablish their credit score, they can reestablish savings, they can even get another job and we can help them with that.”

$tand By Me has served more than 75,000 Delawareans, including more than 14,000 who have participated in financial coaching, since it debuted six years ago.

“Understanding your credit, what is on your credit report, what you can do about it to improve it—I think there’s a misnomer out there that people think, ‘I have bad credit, so I’m done, nothing will ever change. The truth is we can fix that and we can fix that really easily,” Dupont said. “People are empowered to take charge of what’s going on in their financial lives, so they can understand it, own it, manage it and change it.”

Juanita Taylor, another new Fresh Start Client, said she eventually fell into foreclosure while trying to get on her feet after her husband passed away. She said she believes the program will help her and others become empowered.

“[During foreclosure] you’re the homeowner standing on the outside and all the work is being done behind closed doors. It’s harrowing and it’s scary, because you don’t know what’s going on. There’s a lot of shame associated with the foreclosure process. You feel like you did this. But because you keep it private you feel the whole brunt of that pressure, like it’s your fault. You’re too ashamed to ask for help,” Taylor said.

“It’s a little relief when you know when one bill is going to be paid off, but it’s a better relief when you know you can work on this all together and you’re going to be able to get everything resolved at some point to see there is a light at the end of the tunnel.”

Gov. John Carney, D-Delaware, expressed his support for the program during the press conference.

“Home ownership is a fundamental element of our economy and important to ensuring our neighborhoods thrive,” Carney said. “We have to make sure that all Delawareans have an opportunity to succeed, achieve financial stability and strengthen their communities. Through Fresh Start, we are giving people the tools they need to help them work through economic challenges.”

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