Middle class knock more often at housing aid center's door


She's a registered nurse who requested anonymity because she's uncomfortable talking about her family's financial problems, especially when she's just lost her job.

Her family's troubles began last month when Homewood Hospital Center closed and she became an unemployment statistic. With a family of five to support, it quickly became apparent that her husband's $24,000 salary would not stretch far enough to pay the mortgage. The nurse has been unable to find another job that would enable her to share child-care duties with her husband.

The nurse found help at St. Ambrose Housing Aid Center, at 321 E. 25th St., where mortgage-default counselors see about 60 new clients each month. Some of the people who seek help have been laid off, others have been fired and others are the working poor who simply can't keep up their payments after a divorce or a death in the family.

The nurse and her husband were lucky. St. Ambrose helped them find a state program that loaned them enough money to pay the mortgage for six months.

Low-income homeowners make up the bulk of the clients who turn to St. Ambrose for help. But the counselors have noticed an increase in the number of middle-class people who are seeking advice after losing their jobs, an indication of the severity of the recession.

"We've been inundated," said Frank Fischer, supervisor of the St. Ambrose's default counselor, adding: "In the last three to four months we're seeing more affluent, professional people. We had a jeweler from Columbia and one stockbroker from Roland Park. We've seen civil engineers and people from the insurance industry who were in sales, people who used to have $50,000-, $60,000- and $70,000-a-year income."

Jahna Rakos, a Lutheran volunteer working with Fischer as a counselor, said she's advising several people from the construction industry who are threatened with the loss of their homes after falling behind on their mortgage payments.

"Because of the effects on the real estate industry there isn't any work for them. I'm working with a civil engineer and there's no work for him and he's working to get a HUD assignment," she said.

A "HUD assignment" is for those homeowners who have mortgages through the federal FHA program.

With an FHA mortgage, a homeowner who has lost a job, had a divorce or a death in the family can apply to the federal government to take over the mortgage. Once the loan is in the federal government's hands, the payments can be reduced or altogether delayed for up to three years, said Rakos.

The state's program lends homeowners up to $20,000 as a second mortgage. The payments are delayed for as long as two years, depending on the homeowner's financial situation, said Carol Shallenberger, deputy director of homeownership programs for the state's Community Development nTC Administration.

The state has so far given out 135 loans totaling $3 million since February 1990, she said.

The problem with the state program, said Rakos, is that people with prior credit problems, tax liens or equity lines of credit don't qualify.

"Ninety percent of the people I see have a lot of credit problems," she said.

"We deal with the working poor who in good times survive," said Fischer.

"When there's a recession, it's tough to survive out there with three kids, making $13,000 a year. How do they pay their bills? They are the working poor. They don't have spotless credit like people who went to Columbia or Harvard.

"When you're in this situation, you can't get sick, you can't miss work; nobody can die in your family because you can't bury them; everybody lives from paycheck to paycheck, said Fischer.

Veteran mortgage-default counselor Betty Collins, who has been helping people with mortgage problems for five years, has also noticed more people coming to St. Ambrose for help who have been fired for what she believes are inadequate reasons -- one woman for being unable to work due to a difficult pregnancy, others for making seemingly small mistakes at work.

One client, Annie Brown of West Baltimore, said she was fired from a job at a laboratory in Cockeysville. Brown said she was fired after she failed to notice a typographical error on the label of a culture dish.

Now, says Brown, she has applied for welfare and may lose her modest rowhouse, which has three mortgages, the payments for which total $682 monthly.

"It felt terrible," said Brown of her experience applying for welfare.

"I cried. It hurt me. I came home and felt like giving up on the world, like killing myself. I'd like to get my job back, but it's a private company and you can't do anything."

St. Ambrose counselors say the three mortgages make it difficult for her to qualify for any government program.

"I think she's going to lose her house," said Fischer, who said Brown may never again earn what she did in her previous job.

The level of frustration from her clients has disturbed Collins, who said, "I've always managed to leave the job behind me when I go home, but now I'm calling [clients] from home. I'm worried they'll do something desperate."

While people like Annie Brown may lose their homes because they are out of work, St. Ambrose sees many others who are working in low-paid jobs and simply can't pay the bills anymore.

Dorothy M. Horton has been working for 18 years as a nursing assistant at the John L. Deaton Center and now is paid $16,000 a year. After separating from her husband in January, Horton said, she incurred all their debts, including two small mortgages totaling $456 a month for her small rowhouse in north Baltimore.

She also has other loans for which the monthly payments total $256, loans that she took out to have a new kitchen installed and to pay for her foster mother's funeral.

She and her 15-year-old son live a frugal life, she said. To make more money, she works as many double shifts at the Deaton Center as she can stand, starting work at 3 in the afternoon and getting off the next morning at 7.

Fischer said Horton needs another $350 a month to keep up with her debts. St. Ambrose is talking with her about finding a housemate through their home-sharing program to help pay the mortgage.

"Right now, I'm just surviving," Horton said in a weary voice after completing another double shift.

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