On the brink of foreclosure, homeowners find a helping hand

The Baltimore Sun

At a certain point last year, Etta White knew she was going to lose her house.

Her heating bills were close to $500 a month. Her car needed costly repairs. A roommate, whose rent had been helping pay the bills, moved out. White inadvertently bounced a check.

She began missing mortgage payments and then tried to send some of the money.

"The mortgage company sent it back saying they wanted their money in full," White says, "saying they were going to start foreclosure proceedings."

Scared and embarrassed, White sought help from Belair-Edison Neighborhoods Inc., or BENI, a nonprofit organization that works to preserve houses in that Northeast Baltimore neighborhood. She met with housing counselor Roy Miller.

Thanks to Miller's persistent intervention, the office manager who had owned her home for nine years still owns it.

"I was in that office crying," White says, "and he did all the phone calls for me and talked to the people and worked out the deals.

"A year later," she says, "he still calls me to find out how I'm doing. That says you care."

At a time when many say the country is in a real estate crisis, with predatory lending, foreclosures and stretched-thin home buyers, Miller is in the business of keeping people in their homes.

"When you help someone, it's gratifying," he says. "It's like hitting one out of the park."

Miller's batting average for helping people keep their homes is impressive, says Lisa Evans, deputy director at St. Ambrose Housing Aid Center, which often partners with Belair-Edison in efforts to stave off foreclosures in the city.

"If you are in danger of losing [your home], he certainly understands how to go about working with the mortgage companies and the lenders to try to work out what is best for the family," Evans says.

Part of what makes Miller good at what he does is his career background. Before coming to BENI as a housing counselor in 2005, Miller worked first as a loan officer and then as a housing counselor for two mortgage companies.

"That's where the bug bit me," Miller says. "That's where I fell in love with teaching people how to be a homeowner."

As a child growing up in Queens, N.Y., Miller often came to Northeast Baltimore to visit his grandparents. He would play for hours in Herring Run Park. Several career and life changes later, Miller, 47, finds himself working in the community he loved.

Not long after he joined BENI, Miller said he realized that more homeowners needed default and delinquency help. At one point, about 10 percent of Miller's job involved helping homeowners with bad loans or outstanding debts. Today, it's about 40 percent, he says.

Miller puts much of the blame on lenders who want to make a fast dollar. But some fault also falls to the home buyer, he says. "Once people get in homes - I see this so often - people immediately acquire more debt. They buy furniture on credit or get a new car. Then, usually within the first year, a big expense comes - usually a home repair. And they're cash poor."

This is where Miller's training becomes invaluable, says Evans of St. Ambrose.

"Because he knows how to put those loans together, he also knows how to take them apart," she says.

It's that kind of know-how that assisted Miller in helping White, as well as her neighbor, Sheila Moore, whose long-term chronic illness kept her out of work for more than a year - and forced her mortgage company to start sending threatening notices.

"I was panicking, and I was very scared," says Moore, 62. "Mr. Miller was very efficient and kind and very respectful. I didn't feel like I was being judged for being a big idiot."

After working out a payment plan with her mortgage company, Moore says she is back on track.

Miller says it never occurs to him to judge his clients. He is trained to be impartial and dispassionate, though he says he's partial and passionate when it comes to helping people stay in their homes.

"Losing a home is devastating," he says. "When they come in, I just tell them, 'Hey, look, don't worry. We're going to take care of this.'"

Miller pauses and looks around his cramped office, which is, aptly, in a renovated rowhouse on Belair Road. He smiles.

"This," Miller says, "is the best job I've ever had."


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