N.J. restores program to help homeowners pay their mortgages

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 New Jersey is reviving a program to help prevent foreclosures. (Emma Lee/WHYY, file)

New Jersey is reviving a program to help prevent foreclosures. (Emma Lee/WHYY, file)

New Jersey is reviving a program that offered financial assistance to homeowners who were struggling to pay their mortgages.

The New Jersey HomeKeeper program is open to people who are unemployed or underemployed or who are facing a financial hardship like divorce, illness, or the death of a family member.

It offers qualified applicants up to $48,000 for up to 12 months to cover mortgage payments, including payments that borrowers have missed.

“It’s another great tool that we have to work with,” said Bonita Holmes, director of loan counseling and loss mitigation for New Jersey Citizen Action, which acts as an intermediary between homeowners and the state.

“We previously worked with the program for over three years and obtained millions in assistance for our clients,” she said.

HomeKeeper launched in May 2011 and disbursed $230,302,627 to 6,005 borrowers, according to state data, but eventually it stopped accepting new applications.

The program is returning thanks to an influx of about $115 million this year from the Hardest Hit Fund, a federal pot of money meted out to states that were particularly impacted by the housing crisis of the late 2000s.

The revival of HomeKeeper comes at a time when the housing crisis is still felt across New Jersey.

According to the data firm RealtyTrac, New Jersey had the highest foreclosure rate in the country in August.

Shirley Abreu, a financial counselor for the Hamilton-based social services nonprofit Family Guidance, said she sees fewer bad mortgages and more economy-related problems than in past years.

“Some of the people got laid off or they got cut off,” she said. “We don’t see people that are five years behind like we used to. These are people that have just been behind like three months or four months.”

Gov. Chris Christie previously acknowledged problems with HomeKeeper, namely that it took too long to process applications.

In response to the issues, the Department of Community Affairs eased the eligibility rules and added staff.

A spokesperson for DCA did not immediately respond to a request asking if similar changes would be in place this time.

HomeKeeper is operated by the New Jersey Housing and Mortgage Finance Agency, which is part of the Department of Community Affairs.

New Jersey is among 18 states that received money from the Hardest Hit Fund.

A smaller, less popular foreclosure mitigation program run by the state called HomeSaver has disbursed $6,670,196 to 156 borrowers since it began.

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