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Initiative aims to help homeowners

COLUMBUS — Jeanette Wilkes’ home foreclosure problem started when she picked up a box at the Gahanna school where she worked as a janitor, felt her back stiffen and kept on going. Later she learned she’d ruptured two disks.

With Wilkes out of work and newly classified as a risk, her lender raised her mortgage rate, sending her monthly payment out of reach at close to $900. In January, Wilkes got a letter saying the lender was foreclosing on her three-bedroom Columbus home.

Private attorneys plan to help people like Wilkes by offering free legal services through a program for homeowners facing foreclosure, Gov. Ted Strickland said Tuesday as the state-coordinated initiative was unveiled at the Statehouse.

The 1,100 private attorneys will represent homeowners seeking to restructure loans and mediate disputes. They’ll work in coordination with legal aid lawyers in the effort to cut the growing foreclosure rate in a state where foreclosures rose in 85 of 88 counties last year.

Attorney General Marc Dann and Chief Ohio Supreme Court Justice Thomas Moyer sent letters to the more than 34,000 registered lawyers in the state in February asking for volunteers.

Only homeowners who make less than 250 percent of the federal poverty rate — or about $55,000 a year for a family of four — are eligible for the legal help, although state officials said they hope to raise that level as more attorneys step forward.

“These are people who are willing to pay their mortgage,” Columbus Legal Aid attorney Staska Keefer said of Wilkes. “They’re not trying to get a free house.”

Last month, Wilkes and Keefer met to go through paperwork and to prepare a letter to her lender. Keefer found that several aspects of the loan agreement, which was transferred from the original lender to another, weren’t carried out properly.

There are other possible defenses for Wilkes and people like her. But often the best course is to have the lender and homeowner meet and agree to a reasonable interest rate and payment plan, Keefer said.

About 45 local courts in Ohio have either adopted or are in the process of offering mediation between borrowers and lenders who are seeking foreclosure orders.

“Our courts are saying to them, ‘If you’re going to seek an order from us, you have to sit down with these borrowers and see if you can work through these loans,’” state Treasurer Richard Cordray said. “That’s a lot of leverage. That’s a lot of pressure that we can create, and it requires our courts to do it.”

Also, the state’s Department of Commerce launched an informational Web site and a telephone hot line last month to give advice to troubled homeowners. As of Tuesday, homeowners can use the number to find out if they are eligible for the free legal help

Similar coordinated efforts have been tried in local areas elsewhere in the country, said Ira Reingold, executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based National Association of Consumer Advocates. “But I’m not sure anything’s ever been tried on this scale,” he said.

A program initiated by Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley in July has since trained 110 pro bono lawyers, spokesman Harry Pierre said.

The vast majority of the Ohio lawyers who have volunteered don’t have experience with foreclosure law and will need training and mentoring before they can perform services similar to what was done for Wilkes, Keefer said.

That’s not good news, Reingold said.

“This is a pretty complicated area of law. To get up to speed is a difficult task,” he said

Also, the initiative won’t make much headway in a state where a record 83,000 new foreclosures were filed in courts last year.

“If each of the 1,100 takes one case, then that’s 1,100 cases,” Reingold said. “But there’s a lot more than 1,100 people facing foreclosure.”

What’s really needed are more legal aid attorneys who can develop expertise by doing foreclosure cases every day, he said.