When the housing counselors go, the scammers come to prey


In recent years, Southeast Asian families in Minnesota and California were bombarded by this come-on: Win two free tickets to Laos.

Not Disneyland. Not DisneyWorld. Laos. The homeland. Let’s go!

The catch? Just refinance your home with a new variable rate, interest only loan—the kind of loan that brought the housing industry to its knees.

Some families couldn’t resist and did go to Laos. But with housing prices dropping, soon the deferred interest on their homes had piled up to the point where the families were now “upside down” on their loans, with foreclosure imminent.

If only those families had received better advice, their foothold on wealth in America wouldn’t have evaporated.

Lisa Hasegawa, Executive Director of the National Coalition for Asian Pacific American Community Development (NCAPACD) based in Washington, D.C., said that tale was typical of the scams that prey on Asian American immigrant home owners.

“Particularly in communities that don’t speak English, a lot of these loan scams have been proliferating because there’s not an alternative source of information,” Hasegawa said to me in a telephone interview.

Expect to see more of that, especially if the GOP prevails in taking an $88 million dollar swipe at the Housing and Urban Development (HUD) portion of the federal budget.

That’s the money that funds free non-profit counseling programs across the nation–that alternative information source-that helps not just Asian Americans, but a diverse group of clients, including Latino and African Americans, figure out how to navigate the complex housing issues of the day.

In the current class war over budget cuts, people tend to focus on the rich vs. middle class. Maybe seniors. Even Donald Trump wants to save Medicare.

Invisible once again are the issues of diversity, and the people of color within the broader population. The effects of cutting a simple program that provides free home counseling services sensitive to Asian languages and cultures are not insignificant.

NCAPACD said the counseling program is the only one of its kind that provides pre-purchase and post-purchase counseling for first-time and experienced home buyers, with comprehensive services for renters and those seeking transitional shelter as well.

Since 2009, the HUD program has helped more than 4 million families with individual housing counseling, and nearly 834,000 households avoid foreclosure.

Yet the program that produced those accomplishments is considered fat worth cutting in the middle of the greatest housing crisis this country has seen.

Without such a program helping people of color manage their biggest single financial asset, there’s a real risk to community wealth. With just one bad move in this current housing market, a family hit by a foreclosure, a drop in creditworthiness, and maybe bankruptcy may never recover. Add job loss to the mix and a homeowner and his family, once on the ascent, can find themselves deeply mired for decades.

Hasegawa said it’s taken a few years to build up the network at NCAPACD, which is one of 27 national counseling intermediaries affected.

Within the Asian American community, NCAPACD deals with 6 other groups in New York, Los Angeles, Cleveland, Atlanta, and Honolulu. Another 15 groups, like the Philadelphia Chinatown Development Corporation and the Chhaya Community Development Corporation in Jackson Heights, N.Y., get direct funding from HUD to help their clients.

What’s emerged has been an infrastructure serving the housing needs of a national population that’s growing more diverse than ever before.

The GOP’s response has been to say people can fend for themselves. It points to the National Foreclosure Mitigation Counseling (NFMC) program, funded through 2011, and that seems to duplicate what HUD does.

But it doesn’t, certainly not on the bilingual or cultural end.

The GOP also likes to say the market can take care of the issue. But more than likely another phenomenon happens if and when the government abandons the program.

Predators swoop in.

If the government cuts $88 million, that would be a green-light for the unscrupulous to fill the void and line their own pockets. It’s the scammers and predators, who offer high fees for questionable help.

When the non-profits leave, the for-profits have a field day. And consumers, Asian Americans and other people of color who depend on bilingual, culturally friendly services, are the big losers.

How big? Hasegawa said that without a doubt, more Asian Americans will be at risk of losing their homes.

While the rich fend off tax increases in this budget battle, little nicks in the budget are enough to devastate people of color.

Emil Guillermo is an independent journalist/commentator.
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The views expressed in his blog do not necessarily represent AALDEF’s views or policies.
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