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Volunteers Preventing Foreclosures

Legal experts volunteer to help homeowners avoid foreclosure and stay in their homes.

Thanks to Ralph Livingstone and a team of other legal eagles volunteering at the California Legal Senior Hotline, widow Frances Summers, 89, gets to keep her Rio Dell, Calif., home of 30 years, even after it was foreclosed on and sold by the lender.

"I got behind in August of last year," said Summers of her nearly $1,800 monthly mortgage. The Rio Dell resident's monthly income last summer was reduced by $500 with a loss of rental income. The widow's lender foreclosed on her home of 30 years and sold it in July, even after Summers last spring worked out a loan modification agreement—purportedly to prevent foreclosure—with the loan servicing company. That firm has since gone out of business, and the lender sold the house anyway. Livingstone and others successfully negotiated with the lender to reverse the sale.

"The lender is going to cancel the foreclosure," said Livingstone, a 70-year-old lawyer who has been practicing for 45 years—much of the last decade as a volunteer at the nonprofit hotline. "(The bank sale) is being unwound; that's unheard of," he remarked.

The recent win on behalf of the elderly homeowner was a shot in the arm for Livingstone, a Sacramento retiree, who spent a career representing public agencies on commercial and construction matters. Livingstone became a "foreclosure guru" nearly two years ago out of necessity. That's when the hotline, which offers older Californians free legal help, saw one of its first foreclosure-prevention cases.  Since then, the volume of cases has been unrelenting.

America's older homeowners have been swept up in the nation's foreclosure crisis, which has resulted in approximately one of every 11 American mortgages past due or in foreclosure as of April 1. By late July 2008, one in 171 homes had been foreclosed on, received a default notice, or was warned of a pending auction. Foreclosures nationally had climbed 53 percent for the year ended June 30, 2008, according to  

The supply of legal and counseling experts willing to volunteer to help vulnerable homeowners is well shy of demand. "It's hard to get people to do," noted Rawle Andrews Jr., managing attorney with AARP Legal Counsel for the Elderly (LCE), the primary provider of free legal services for older District of Columbia residents. "They are heart-wrenching (cases)," he said.        

Still, Livingstone and other legal experts are chipping in to help older residents keep their homes.

Don Tanguilig, 50, a paralegal at King & Spalding's Washington, D.C., office, works nights and weekends proofing legal briefs, conducting interviews, and performing other tasks to help older Washingtonians keep their homes. Tanguilig volunteers about 25 hours a month for the legal counsel.

"Wherever I'm needed, I will go," said Tanguilig, who started volunteering his time and expertise in January 2007. "It gives me a chance to give back. You need a legacy with more meaning to it than living for the almighty dollar."

Columbus, Ohio, lawyer Richard Walker has answered the call to pitch in with Ohio's foreclosure-prevention effort, called "Save the Dream."

"If you are not making your house payment today, you can't go out and hire legal help," noted the 67-year-old real estate and construction lawyer. "If you could afford an attorney, you'd be paying your mortgage," Walker said.

One of the states hardest hit by the foreclosure crisis, Ohio saw 83,000 foreclosures filed last year, noted Walker. He reported that fewer than 4 percent of homeowners were represented by counsel. 

"I can negotiate with lenders; that's what I've done most of my life," said Walker, who calculates he has volunteered about 250 hours so far this year. "People do have an obligation to their fellow members of the world to try to help solve problems."

Too often "the problems are really created by the lenders—perpetrated against the borrowers by unscrupulous lenders," said Livingstone.

Some seniors are victims of predatory lenders; others are at risk of losing their homes over crushing medical debt or the death of an income-earning spouse. Still others find themselves not understanding the nuances of adjustable rate mortgages, balloon payments, or other financing terms pushed by "experts"—offers that seemed too good to be true, and probably were.

"The loan was too expensive to start off with," scoffed Summers, who was weeks away from seeing her adjustable rate loan jump to more than $2,000 a month. Thanks to the help of Livingstone and other volunteers, Summers has her home back and is breathing a bit easier. "I feel really well," she said.

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