Macon family stays in house thanks to federal program

From 2007 to 2012 everything seemed to be going fine for Rhonda Lowe, her family and their house off Thomaston Road.

“Back when Willie and I first got the house, everything was great,” she said. But in 2012 the lack of patients at the personal care home where Rhonda Lowe worked cost her that job. Their ability to handle mortgage payments was based on two steady incomes.

Like so many others in Middle Georgia and the nation over the past few years, the Lowes fell several months behind on their mortgage payments.

“We started to panic that very next month, because we knew where we were going to be,” she said.

Unemployment benefits helped but weren’t enough to cover the mortgage along with other household expenses, Lowe said.

“We have two daughters,” she said. “We did not want to move. We loved our subdivision, loved our neighbors.”

They faced the prospect of losing their house, moving into a smaller apartment and seeing their credit wither. Then her father-in-law heard from someone at church about a federally funded free program to help people in the Lowes’ situation. It was called HomeSafe Georgia.

“It really was a blessing for us,” Lowe said.

HomeSafe Georgia is funded by the U.S. Treasury Department but administered through the Georgia Department of Community Affairs. Its financial counseling and assistance, provided directly or through certified local partners, has helped more than 6,500 homeowners in 129 Georgia counties since 2011, said Carmen Chubb, DCA deputy commissioner of housing.

“We can help them pay their mortgage and avoid foreclosure,” she said. HomeSafe is available to the unemployed, underemployed and to people suffering a variety of financial hardships. But so far, only the Lowes and 49 other families have made use of HomeSafe Georgia in Macon-Bibb County, Chubb said.

Getting help from HomeSafe is free. There are no fees or costs of any kind, either through direct application or with the help of local partner agencies, she said.

GreenPath Debt Solutions has been a certified local partner of HomeSafe for some time, and recently HomeFirst Housing Resource Services was certified as well. Staff at both nonprofit agencies are trained to help homeowners apply for HomeSafe program funding.

The program will end in December 2017, or sooner if the money runs out, Chubb said. She urges people to go to the program’s website, where they can find out if they’re eligible -- and for what program -- by answering seven questions.

Lowe said HomeSafe representatives walked her through the application.

“It was really a very professional staff,” she said. “We felt like they really cared whether or not we stayed in our home.”

And the Lowes were approved. Between May 1, 2013, and Dec. 1, 2014, they got $43,000 in mortgage assistance, said Gana Ahn, senior media manager for the Atlanta office of Golin, a communications firm touting HomeSafe Georgia. That 24-month period is the maximum HomeSafe Georgia provides, she said.

A related program to get mortgage payments caught up can last for 12 months, Chubb said. The typical amount homeowners get is $18,000 to $20,000, but it depends on mortgage payments and other factors, she said.

There is no income cutoff. The only limitation is that the program can’t be used on mortgages with an outstanding balance of $418,000 or more, Chubb said.

Foreclosures and mortgage delinquency in Macon-Bibb County run well ahead of the state average, Ahn said.

The main reasons people qualify for help are high medical bills, the death of a spouse or any sort of permanent income reduction, Chubb said.

HomeSafe particularly seeks to help military families that may have fallen behind because of a service member’s deployment, she said.

“Anything that affects their income and their ability to make their mortgage payment, they can qualify for one of the programs,” Chubb said.

In June 2013 Lowe became an administrative assistant at Macon Transit Authority, and a year later was promoted to human resources manager.

But she said she still isn’t earning what she did before.

Lowe said she’s grateful for a program to help families stay in their house.

“I feel like we would have lost our home,” she said. “I just cannot thank them enough for what they did for me and my family.”