Reprinted Courtesy of: American Libraries Magazine
By: Deniz Koray
With free clinics and expert panelists, San Diego County Library has been at the forefront of helping residents find relief during the housing crisis.
When Susan Moore accepted a job at the San Diego County (Calif.) Library (SDCL) in 2008 after spending the previous 15 years in Louisville, Kentucky, she did not expect to be organizing foreclosure clinics for the public. However, Moore’s arrival in Southern California coincided with the beginning of the nationwide housing crisis—and San Diego would be among the hardest-hit locations in the country.
SoCal’s housing crisis
The default rate among county homeowners increased by more than 230% from 2006 to 2008, according to InnoVest Resource Management, which posts monthly housing statistics dating back to 1991 from the San Diego County Recorder’s Office. During that same time, the number of defaults grew from almost 10,300 to more than 34,000. And the worst was yet to come: In 2009, the county experienced more than 38,000 defaults.
For much of the previous decade, San Diego County had fewer than 6,000 defaults annually. As a result, this slide meant that an unprecedented number of area residents were experiencing for the first time the possibility of losing their homes, and Moore believed that many of them were overwhelmed by the process and did not know where to look for information. “There was not a real central toll-free number for housing information that a person could go to if they looked locally,” she told American Libraries.
Although Moore knew the library had to do something to address a problem facing many of its customers, she wasn’t sure where to turn. “They don’t really tell you about this in library school, and it’s not very traditional as a library service, but we saw the need was there,” she said.
However, she received strong support from José Aponte, director of San Diego County Library. The housing crisis had hit close to home for Aponte; relatives had notified him that they were at risk of losing their own home. Aponte suggested that they immediately hire an attorney to save their house, but he later learned that the expense would have made such an effort too difficult.
Aponte encouraged Moore, now the deputy director of the county library, to continue to search for a solution to the problem affecting an increasing number of the county’s residents, even though it fell outside the typical role of the library. Even though the county library’s budget had been reduced by almost a third in the past few years, from 2008 to 2011, Aponte has supported the continuation of the program.
Partnering with nonprofits
The Housing Opportunities Collaborative (HOC) was one of the first nonprofit organizations in the area to provide assistance to homeowners struggling to keep up with their mortgages. HOC has chapters in five Southern California counties: Imperial, Orange, Riverside, San Bernardino, and San Diego. The San Diego branch held its first free foreclosure clinic on June 2, 2007, and featured credit counselors, lenders, and attorneys.
As HOC’s programs grew in popularity throughout the following year, the group sought a stable venue to host its monthly clinics. In its first year, HOC held its programs in a variety of locations, including community centers and the offices of partnering agencies.
Vino Pajanor, HOC’s president and executive director, said the organization was seeking a location that the community would trust, and while the group had also considered working with churches, the library had been its first choice.
“One of the main reasons we wanted to work with the library is because it is a neutral ground where people are comfortable,” Pajanor told AL. “It’s not a place where people will pitch a product or service they don’t need or require, and there won’t be somebody trying to scam them.”
Despite operating in a time of cuts to programming, Moore said the library was excited to partner with the Housing Opportunities Collaborative because it presented an opportunity to help hundreds of customers who were in need of housing assistance but were uncertain about where to turn and unable to afford real estate attorneys.
The partnership became official in January 2009, when HOC held a clinic at SDCL’s Encinitas branch. More than 200 people attended the event.
Since that first clinic, HOC has continued to work with the San Diego County Library, and Pajanor is effusive in his praise for the library’s commitment to the program. “When others were asking why libraries should be doing programs like this, they [Aponte and Moore] were the first to say they should be doing this,” Pajanor said. “It was kind of a risk, but the leadership made this possible in San Diego.”
Moore said she quickly realized an additional, unanticipated benefit to hosting the foreclosure clinics in several locations: Many attendees did not want to be seen in public meetings, so they often avoided going to branches near their homes.
Because SDCL has 33 branches—with the Fallbrook branch almost 90 minutes north of the main library headquarters and other locations two hours south, near the Mexican border—residents wary of being seen by neighbors had multiple options away from their local libraries to receive free assistance.
A firsthand account
Some clinic attendees, such as Jeffery Broussard, have been willing to speak out and inform the public about the help they received from area experts. Broussard purchased his San Diego County home in August 2005 but encountered problems paying his mortgage in July 2010. He found out about the clinics after searching for help online. Soon after, he began attending monthly meetings.
“I went to every one until I found a solution,” Broussard told AL. “And even when I got the solution, I kept on going to discuss how I got there.”
He said continual attendance was useful because there were often different kinds of experts at the monthly meetings, and therefore information was rarely repeated. “The different speakers offered unique angles and were talking about new things that were happening,” Broussard said.
Additionally, he said, attending the clinics regularly helped him stay on task. “If you keep going to the clinics, it keeps you focused on the case. Talking about it, hearing about it, and meeting with people.”
Broussard also agreed about the advantages Pajanor saw in holding the clinics in public libraries. “There was a definite benefit to having them in the library. You knew you weren’t going to be sold anything.”
Ultimately, Broussard said, his mortgage situation was resolved in February 2011, about eight months after he started attending the clinics. He thought there was a direct correlation between his active participation and the positive result. “I turned over every rock to save my house,” he said. “I didn’t want to be sitting in an apartment two or three years from now, wondering what else I could have done, since owning a home has been one of the best things that has ever happened to me.”
The current state of clinics
Since the first clinic was held, the Housing Opportunities Collaborative has had more than 30 workshops at branches of San Diego County Library. From the beginning, the clinics have had the same general format: They occur on Saturdays, beginning at 10 a.m. Each one involves credit counselors; housing counselors from agencies approved by the US Department of Housing and Urban Development; pro bono attorneys specializing in bankruptcy, real estate, and tax law; and real estate professionals. All attendees have the option to meet individually with experts afterward.
At the peak of the housing crisis, HOC was offering one session every month, with more than 70 families attending on average—although at one point, a single session had more than 600 attendees. Pajanor said the peak of attendance was mid-to-late 2010.
Myrna Pascual, a field policy manager at the US Department of Housing and Urban Development, was one of the founders of the clinics and has been a volunteer for HOC since the start of the housing crisis. At the peak of attendance, she said, the most significant problem for volunteer panelists was meeting the demand.
“Trying to help 600 people from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. is just undoable, and in that instance we had to have 40 attorneys, an entire bar [association], go over for that [to meet demand].” Pascual, who also has a law degree and is a volunteer attorney, said she recruits from county and local minority bar associations.
Each volunteer is prescreened and has agreed not to solicit business while at the clinics—not even hand out business cards, said Pajanor.
According to the San Diego County Recorder’s Office, the number of defaults has been declining the past three years, since 2009, and attendance numbers at the clinics have followed that trajectory. Still, the clinics attract 40–50 families per session, and Moore said the library anticipates holding six or seven sessions in 2013.
Beyond San Diego
While San Diego County Library continues to have a positive relationship with the Housing Opportunities Collaborative and remains at the forefront of providing patrons with assistance about this issue, it is certainly not the only library working with housing nonprofits.
The Las Vegas–Clark County Library District has also hosted several housing clinics run by local nonprofits.
In fall 2011, it worked with the Nevada Justice Association to offer classes on bankruptcy and foreclosure prevention. This past fall, the library district partnered with Nevada Legal Services to provide similar classes, according to Jennifer Weitz, public services administration coordinator for the county library district. Additionally, the library is planning to work with the Legal Aid Center of Southern Nevada to host foreclosure prevention classes next spring.
The Housing Opportunities Collaborative may also partner with more libraries in Southern California in the future. Connie Der Torossian of HOC’s Orange County chapter—which has run clinics in churches, community centers, and government buildings—said the organization was also hoping to increase its relationship with the Orange County Library and possibly hold meetings in its libraries.
DENIZ KORAY is a freelance journalist based out of Baton Rouge, Louisiana. His writing has appeared in publications such as the Los Angeles Business Journal and the Columbia Missourian.
Tips on Implementing Housing Programs
- Support from the top is crucial. Susan Moore, deputy director of the San Diego County Library, credits Director José Aponte for being supportive of the library’s partnership with the Housing Opportunities Collaborative. While such an alliance may not fall into the traditional role of the library, both Moore and Aponte believe it helped address community needs.
- Anticipate future community needs. While the San Diego County Library is continuing to host foreclosure clinics, it has decreased the number of programs for 2013, as fewer residents are defaulting on mortgage payments. Instead, Moore said the library will be devoting resources to more relevant projects such as fairs for people who may have suffered credit problems but may now be thinking about getting back into the housing market.
- It is possible to implement programs during budget cuts. San Diego County Library has seen its budget reduced by 32% in the past three years. Much like other libraries throughout the country, despite the cuts, SDCL has seen increases in circulation as well as the continuation of the housing clinics. Both Aponte and Moore said the key is to build lasting partnerships with quality organizations that are interested in donating their time for a worthwhile cause.
- Consider the possibility that members of the community may be hesitant to attend foreclosure clinics at branches near their home or workplace out of embarrassment. So, be prepared to hold the meetings in a variety of locations. According to Moore, a meeting intended for Marine Corps personnel near Camp Pendleton was poorly attended; but people from the military were willing to travel to clinics as far away as Imperial Beach—more than 90 minutes away from the base.
- Reach out to prospective partners and explain the benefit of working with the library. Jennifer Weitz of the Las Vegas–Clark County Library District said many potential partners were unaware that the library had space available for programs at multiple branches. It is quite possible that nonprofits and other local organizations may lack familiarity with the capabilities of your own libraries as well.