Toll-free call suggested for housing

After hearing predictions that the residential mortgage and housing bust will hit bottom in 18 months, Nevada legislators on Monday decided to seek funding for a toll-free number that struggling homeowners can call for advice.

The Legislative Housing and Mortgage Study Subcommittee on Mortgage Lending voted 4-0 with one member absent to recommend that Nevada provide up to $400,000 yearly for a toll-free number giving advice on how to avoid foreclosure.

“The biggest problem is just communication,” subcommittee chairman and Assemblyman Marcus Conklin said, summarizing comments from the meeting.

The recommendation for a toll-free help line will be sent to the Interim Finance Committee to determine how much it should spend on the program.

The meeting follows a private meeting that Gov. Jim Gibbons held with lenders earlier this month. Gibbons afterward suggested problem mortgages be addressed individually. He also named a task force to study the problem. Meanwhile, the Nevada Department of Business & Industry is creating a Web site for consumers with home loan problems.

Nevada has led the nation in foreclosures for nine months with one foreclosure start for every 185 households in September.

More than 6,000 homes in Nevada, including 5,000 in Clark County, are in foreclosure, said David Ziegler, principal research analyst with the Legislative Counsel Bureau. The number of foreclosures in Clark County is five times higher than a year ago.

Some 29,000 homes listed for sale in Clark County and 47 percent of those vacant. Of the foreclosed homes, 11 percent are occupied by renters.

Vacant homes include those never occupied, which investors bought, and homes in which the owner-occupants have been forced to leave.

Ziegler suggested that foreclosures may peak 18 months from now, citing estimates that interest rates will be reset, often higher, for 2 million adjustable rate mortgages nationwide.

“It’s sort of like the Titanic,” said Gail Burks, CEO of the Nevada Fair Housing Center. “If we don’t do something soon, we’re all going down together.”

Yet, the Consumer Credit Counseling Service, a nonprofit group, often is not able to counsel consumers with mortgage debt problems until foreclosure is the only option, said chief executive Michele Johnson. Counseling sessions that once could be held within two days now take two weeks as the nonprofit group struggles with increasing requests for assistance and a 65 percent cut in federal funding.

Subcommittee members said they did not want to help housing speculators, but they had no firm number on how many of the foreclosures were for investor-owned properties.

“For the market to work correctly, sometimes people take losses (in investments),” said Ken LoBene, field office director of the Housing and Urban Development Department.

But meeting participants expressed sympathy for families who bought high-priced homes with bad mortgages, because they moved to Las Vegas for a job during the residential real estate boom.

Contact reporter John G. Edwards at j edwards@reviewjournal.com or (702) 383-0420.

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