Illustration by Jeff Szuc
About 10 years ago, Mattie Burts bought a bungalow on a tree-lined street on the Northwest Side. It was her first home, a little nest for Burts and her 1-year-old daughter.
But last winter, a roof repair shook the family’s foundation by triggering a chain reaction. Because she was unable to pay for the repair, she lost insurance coverage on the house, and her bank began charging her monthly for insurance and property taxes. “My mortgage [went] from $551 a month to $850,” she says. “It was like my world had come to an end.”
Around the same time, she lost a Social Security benefit, falling into the spiral that’s typical of many foreclosures. She remembers thinking that her family would “soon be homeless,” so she called her bank again and was told that numerous forms she thought she’d submitted had never been received. “I was so confused,” she says.
One night, Burts sat watching TV and brushing away tears when she saw an ad for a nonprofit organization, Housing Resources Inc., that helps homeowners extricate themselves from brambles like the one she’d fallen into. The group says that about 40 percent of the homeowners it works with – people struggling with a delinquent mortgage or outright foreclosure – had happy outcomes in 2012. That’s almost a coin toss.
HRI and another local organization, Select Milwaukee, are in the business of promoting, supporting and coaching homeownership. HRI receives funding from the city of Milwaukee and local banks. Select Milwaukee – which says it kept about 380 homeowners out of foreclosure between 2009 and 2012 – receives part of its funding from the Zilber Foundation. “A lot of times, there’s shame and confusion, and people don’t know what resources are out there,” says Kristin Venkler, Select’s homeownership-preservation manager.
Burts, who ended up phoning HRI, was trying her very hardest to reach a similar happy ending. She spoke with Yolanda Richardson, the group’s “homeownership preservation specialist,” someone who would become “like family to me,” she says now, looking back on the two years she spent fighting for a loan modification.
“I worked very hard to get this home,” she says, “and I worked very hard to hold onto it.”
As she worked primarily seasonal jobs, such as school bus driver and another position at a group home for girls, Burts’ income could vary widely from month to month. “It was a roller coaster,” she says. “The bank was very rude, but Yolanda was always like, ‘Don’t cry. I know you’re tired, but keep fighting.’”
Richardson says Burts fell into a “spiral of delinquency, but was able to see her way out of it.” Homeowners often give up after a year or two, but if a lender lowers the interest rate and extends the loan’s term, that can give someone like Burts the time she needs, Richardson says.
Finally, the HRI staffer could place the call to Burts to tell her that a loan modification had been approved. “I was in the middle of driving when my phone rang,” Burts says, and she had to pull over to the side of the road, to have, as it turned out, a good, long cry.