Our view: Gwinnett foreclosures still on rise

This isn't the kind of record you want to set: more Gwinnett County homes will fall into the foreclosure process this month than ever before.

We never thought we'd see 1,400 foreclosures in a month, but crossed that number in September. January saw nearly 1,700 foreclosures. But those numbers pale to what's expected this month: More than 2,000 properties entering foreclosure proceedings in Gwinnett County.

That means more vacant homes, more evicted families, more people looking for a place to live.

Tom Merkel, runs IMPACT! Group, a nonprofit corporation offering a range of services that promote home ownership in Gwinnett, including guidance and counseling for those in foreclosure.

Merkel puts himself in the tiny group of businesses who hope their business will be cut in half by this time next year. Right now, business is booming and has been on the rise for a while.

"We helped 750 homeowners avoid foreclosure in 2007; 1,755 in 2008. Through two months of this year, we're on pace to serve between 2,400 and 2,600."

And his team is handling the increase with a reduced staff. Because charitable contributions are down, IMPACT!, like many other nonprofits, has had to do more with less.

Merkel is keeping a close eye on President Barack Obama's housing rescue plan as it makes its way through Washington. The House passed the bill 234-191 on Thursday. The Senate is expected to take it up within weeks.

Among the bill's many provisions is one that allows bankruptcy judges to lower the interest rate or principal on existing home mortgages. The goal is to reduce the number of foreclosures and keep people in their homes. That would be good news for IMPACT!

But there are still some questions about how the plan will work and affect IMPACT!

While details of the plan are being sorted out, Merkel has advice for those finding it difficult to fulfill their mortgage obligations.

First, call the lender directly and try to work out a new deal. If the lender is willing, a modification to the original terms of the mortgage is the best and easiest way to remain in the home.

If the lender and homeowner can't make things work, Merkel suggests calling in the IMPACT! Group.

IMPACT!'s goal is to keep families from losing their homes. With the right approach and the right plan, IMPACT!'s HUD-approved counselors can help with the negotiations. The organization also holds one-on-one sessions and group seminars for homeowners.

One last Merkel suggestion is to be on alert when navigating these turbulent seas. Private companies are touting that they can deliver the same services as IMPACT! The big difference is they will charge; IMPACT!'s services are free.

Check if the company is a HUD-approved counseling agency. In the worst cases, some of these companies are merely scams - predators taking advantage of the desperation that comes with the prospect of losing a home.

For more info on IMPACT! or to find out how you can help with its mission: 678-808-4477 or info@theimpactgroup.org.

The unsigned editorials reflect the opinion of the Gwinnett Daily Post. Columns, letters to the editor and cartoons reflect the opinions of the individuals who penned them. It is the policy of the Gwinnett Daily Post to correct all errors of fact. Corrections usually run on Page 4A.