MEDFORD, OREGON - "Who needs housing counseling," you may have heard someone say. "The Great Recession's over. The bad guys have been put out of business. And there's a pile of new rules now in place to make sure we get a fair deal."
Okay. Assume the wishful thinking's all true. But then think about the number 34. That's the percentage, says the Bureau of Labor Statistics, of gross income the average American household spends each to have a place to call home. Lots of households, unfortunately, spend lots more.
Housing costs are a big chunk of change, more than you'll likely to spend on anything else. Twice, for example, your monthly transportation costs - probably your second-highest expense - and way more than what you spend for food or clothing or just having a good time. Financially speaking, it's the elephant in the room.
Which explains why, in 2014, 2.4 million American people sought the services and expertise of 2,400 HUD-approved housing counseling agencies across the country. Renters wanted to understand their rights and obligations. Homebuyers to learn all the ins and outs in buying a home. And homeowners behind in their mortgages to figure what to get current and hold onto their home. And all the good advice they got they got for free.
HUD provides some $50 million annually to support its network of housing counseling agencies. The return on that investment is huge. A 2013 study of 75,000 mortgages found that homeowners receiving counseling "are one-third less likely to become 90+ days delinquent over the 2 years after receiving their loan than borrowers who did not." A 2014 Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia analysis concluded that homebuyers receiving one-on-one, pre-purchase counseling improved credit scores twice as fast and cut debt by twice the amount of those who didn't. And a 2014 Urban Institute study reported that homeowners in default were 72 percent less likely to re-default than non-counseled households.
Housing counseling's not just about dollars and cents. It's also about new opportunities, new choices for the housing-challenged. Meet Michael McIntire, a 46-year old Marine Corps veteran and single dad. He thought he had life figured out. After serving his country for five years he got a good-paying job in Texas that gave him and his 7-year-old son a good lifestyle and allowed him to pay child support for his second son living in Oregon.
But then the work slowed down. Times turned tough and Michael realized there were changes to be made, especially if he wanted to reunite his family. So he packed up and made the move west to Oregon. He moved-in temporarily with his ex-in- laws and looked for work. Jobs were scarce, but he landed a part-time position. Things were working out.
Until the in-laws decided to sell their house. He needed somewhere else to live. He knew his part-time job wouldn't be enough to live on. With $170 deducted weekly for child support he'd have just $350 every two weeks to provide for his family.
"I knew if I couldn't find help I would lose my son and become homeless," he told The Bridge, a newsletter produced by HUD's Office of Housing Counseling. "So I called around, learned of ACCESS" a full-service community action agency that is a HUD-approved counselor. I "went straight to the office."
Thanks to ACCESS, he found the help he needed, an apartment at Freedom Square, a complex owned and operated by the Housing Authority of Jackson County for veterans and their families. ACCESS, he said helped with a security deposit, rental assistance and utilities.
Recently Michael got a promotion. Financially he's now self-sufficient. "ACCESS helped me keep my family together" and "saw us through a tough time. If it weren't for ACCESS I don't know where we would be right now."
Some almost 300 households will seek housing help from ACCESS this year as will 2 million other families that, HUD has told the Congress, will be helped by housing counseling agencies. Like Michael, we expect they'll be glad they did.