Housing Problems: Where To Get Help

There’s a great column in the New York Times today about Tom Cox in Maine. Cox is a retired bank lawyer who’s helping his neighbors deal with foreclosures.

In 1989, Tom Cox, a lawyer for a Maine bank at the time, wrote the book on mortgage foreclosures (“Maine Real Estate Foreclosure Procedures for Lenders and Workout Officers”), detailing the most effective legal methods for seizing people’s homes.

After 30 years of that, he retired and in 2008, during the Great Recession, he experienced a crisis of conscience and switched sides to work pro bono for people whose homes were being foreclosed on by banks.

In this case it took a banker to catch a banker. Mr. Cox very quickly realized that GMAC, the mortgage company he was suing in court to save Nicolle Bradbury’s $75,000 house, was mass-producing flawed paperwork to seize people’s homes illegally. This set off what would become known as the robo-mortgage scandal, leading to a $25 billion settlement that forced the nation’s largest banks to halt foreclosures.

For his work, Mr. Cox is one of five people to be awarded a $100,000 Purpose Prize, given to those 60 and over who have created fresh solutions to old problems.

That reminded me of an experience I had a few weeks ago on the way to the airport at 6am for a marathon trip to New York and Washington DC for the FEI Current Financial Reporting Issue Conference and the PCAOB SAG meeting. My limo driver to O’Hare was a Bulgarian man, an undocumented immigrant, who told me a progressively more depressing tale of woe about his apartment building that was in foreclosure, how he was waiting for a mortgage modification and had been forced to not pay his mortgage to get that mod which wrecked his credit rating, and his Kafkaesque  nightmare dealings with JP Morgan Chase. (Bulgarians know Kafka.)

At around Ogden Avenue, he asked me what I did and I told him I write about these subjects. By the time we got to the airport I realized his situation was really quite complicated and I did not have good advice to give him. I gave him my card anyway.

The conversation prompted me to ask Alys Cohen, staff attorney of the National Consumer Law Center what I should say to people I meet who ask my advice about these issues. (It happens to me more and more these days.)

If you write to the National Consumer Law Center for assistance of any kind, their email response includes this guidance.

You may want to contact a lawyer.  If you are a low-income consumer, you may qualify for free legal advice at a local legal services office.  A directory of legal services offices is on the internet at www.lsc.gov.  A large directory of private lawyers who take consumer cases is atwww.naca.net.  Another resource on the internet is www.LawHelp.org. You may also obtain a referral from the county bar association.  Another resource is the consumer protection department in your state’s Attorney General’s office.  You may also file a complaint with the federal Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, 1-855-411-2372 or www.consumerfinance.gov.

For student loan assistance, the following website may help www.studentloanborrowerassistance.org.

If you have a home ownership issue and cannot find a lawyer to review your case, you may want to try contacting a housing counselor by calling (800) 569-4287 or listed on this website at http://www.hud.gov/offices/hsg/sfh/hcc/hcs.cfm.

Alys had this additional advice for those with foreclosure and mortgage modifications issues:

Often what people need the most is to try to get a modification and to get help figuring it out.

Housing counselors and attorneys:  For housing counselors, in general the best option is a HUD certified housing counseling agency. Here’s the HUD webpage with the listings.


Sometimes a fair housing group is helpful and the National Fair Housing Alliance has a webpage for that.


Often the person needs an attorney so we also suggest that to folks if a counselor is unavailable, they are not getting the modification nor other help they need from the counselor, or their situation is better suited to an attorney.

If they are low-income they should seek help from their local legal services office. And if they are not or legal services in their area will not take their case, then private attorneys can do these.

When in Maine there’s Tom Cox.

Yay Maine.