Nicole Antoinette stands outside her home in Suwanee. Antoinette worked in IT, made a good salary and had plenty of savings. After a third layoff, she applied and received money from HomeSafe Georgia, a temporary mortgage assistance program. She used these funds for about one year, but also underwent job training for a new career to become a project manager. (Staff Photo: Keith Farner)
As a loyal employee who loved to help kids, Nicole Wilson figured she did everything in her power to make herself valuable to the Clarke County School System.
Yet in 2010, even with four degrees on her resume and three years of experience, Wilson’s teaching contract was not renewed.
All of a sudden, her life was served a significant portion of adversity. Especially since she purchased a two-bedroom and two-and-a-half bathroom townhome in Buford in 2007 after she graduated from the University of Kentucky.
“You know in the back of your mind it’s a possibility,” Wilson said. “But you don’t see it happening. That was a blow.”
In the midst of severe budget cuts throughout education, Wilson said she utilized the unemployment system in Gwinnett, and noted an unofficial regional hiring freeze made things especially difficult.
“I had gotten discouraged,” she said. “Nothing panned out.”
Trying to recover financially, Wilson remained in education and worked as a substitute teacher and later as a para-professional.
Even in the darkest hours, Wilson had perspective when she learned a friend’s husband lost his job at the same time the family was expecting a baby.
When she was hired as a para-pro at Richards Middle, Wilson said the administration knew she was over-qualified with a bachelor’s degee, master’s degree and two specialist degrees in the fields of counseling and psychology.
This fall, Wilson will return to Richards for a third school year and now teaches eighth-grade language arts and special education. Yet she credits HomeSafe Georgia, a temporary mortgage assistance program, with helping her make mortgage payments while she was in a career transition.
“I felt blessed because the burden was lifted,” Wilson said.
The program began in 2011, but was promoted at a press conference outside the Gwinnett Justice and Administration Center in November 2012 as several elected officials and faith leaders touted its merits.
The program set out to use $339 million federal dollars to help 18,000 Georgia families by this year who are unemployed or underemployed, through no fault of their own for up to 18 months.
The federal program, part of the U.S. Treaury’s Hardest Hit Fund, is designed to help 19 states that were the hardest hit in the foreclosure crisis.
The seven-year program helped 2,100 Georgia families in the first year and a half. In June alone, 478 people statewide applied for assistance, the highest single month this year and the highest since at least October 2013. There were 56 homeowners from Gwinnett County who applied in June, the highest number for any single month in 2014 from Gwinnett.
Through May, 746 Gwinnett homeowners were approved and benefitted from the program.
The original goal was to help 2,000 families in Gwinnett.
Gwinnett ranks No. 2 in the state for homeowners who have been approved for the program in Georgia. DeKalb County is No. 1 at 794. Statewide, more than 5,200 homeowners have been approved for HomeSafe Georgia.
“In recent months, we’ve placed an increased emphasis on marketing HomeSafe Georgia statewide,” spokesman Scott Scredon said.
Among the marketing was two 30-second ads featuring homeowners who successfully saved their homes through the HomeSafe Georgia program. One of the ads featured Wilson.
The program has spent about $110 million. Scredon added that the program estimates that the homes saved from foreclosure are “conservatively” valued at a combined $600 million.
“These homeowners have continued to pay taxes and by keeping these homes out of foreclosure, and by doing so, the program has helped maintain the property values in many neighborhoods,” he said.
One reason the promotional press conference was held in Gwinnett was because the county has been at or near the top in most foreclosures statewide.
“We like to brag about being the biggest, the best, the first in a lot of ways, but this is not one we’re proud of,” Gwinnett Chairwoman Charlotte Nash said in 2012.
Nicole Antoinette, who has spent her career working in internet technology, can relate to Wilson as another HomeSafe Georgia recipient.
For 22 years, the Suwanee resident worked her way up to middle management. But over a course of 10 years, Antoinette was laid off three times — in 2003, 2007 and 2012.
“Each time, I went from a six-figure salary to zero,” she said.
In 2003, the job market was hot and she found another job before her severance ended. In 2007, when she worked in a director’s role, but when her company was acquired, she figured there was a chance she could be laid off.
That time, she was laid off for three and a half years, and in that time used up a significant amount of savings.
“Every penny I had was gone,” she said.
While she was unemployed, Antoinette was shocked at the results when she searched online for tips about how to survive a job layoff. The broken record results were to stay positive, update your resume and network.
“You’ve got to be kidding me,” she recalled thinking.
When she returned to the job market, it was at a 50 percent pay cut.
As Antoinette struggled to restart her career, her priorities were to find medical coverage, pay her mortgage and pay her son’s tuition at the University of Southern California where he’s studying film and television production.
Because she couldn’t find any material to navigate through her unemployment, Antoinette was motivated to write a book called, “Getting Beyond the Day: Your guide to surviving a job layoff.”
She nearly lost her home three times, and after the second layoff almost filed for bankruptcy. In hindsight, Antoinette is glad she didn’t because that would have made her ineligible for HomeSafe Georgia.
She perservered, but admitted there were plenty of low points.
“The fight was more powerful than the depression you can get into,” she said. “I had to survive. I had to survive for my son, my family, friends, loved ones.”
While she received assistance from HomeSafe Georgia for several months in 2012 and 2013, Antoinette said her emotional state kept her from considering putting out a “for sale” sign even though she figured to have $50,000 to $100,000 in equity in the home.
Looking back on the layoffs and housing crisis, Antoinette has added some perspective to work. Admitting there’s “no shame in her game,” Antoinette said she now takes pictures and bakes cookies to make extra money.
“Every penny counts,” she said. “I look at money a lot differently now.”
Antoinette said she believes no one is exempt from a layoff — “You can go from employed to unemployed in five seconds or less” — and if that’s the case, why not prepare?
“You never know when you’d start work again,” she said.
And about a year after she transitioned out of the HomeSafe Georgia program, Antoinette is proud of her current mortgage situation.
She’s paying ahead.
For more information about HomeSafe Georgia, visit homesafegeorgia.com or call 1-877-519-4443.
• A 25 percent reduction in income or 30 percent loss in gross receipts if self-employed— Legal U.S. resident who is living in a primary residence classified as real estate
• Monthy mortgage is 25 percent greater than monthy household income
• The mortgage was current prior to loss of income
• Current or no more than six months behind at time of application
• Don’t have more than $5,000 in liquid assets (doesn’t apply to retirement accounts)
• Don’t have an active bankruptcy or a tax lien
• Haven’t been convicted of a mortgage-related felony in the last 10 years
• Total outstanding mortgage balance isn’t more than $417,000
Testimonials of HomeSafe Georgia
HomeSafe Georgia, a temporary mortgage assistance program, saw 478 people statewide apply in June, the highest single month this year and the highest since at least October 2013. There were 56 homeowners from Gwinnett who applied in June, the highest number for any single month in 2014 from Gwinnett County.