Celebrating homeownership month by saving homeowners

June is Homeownership Month, when federal and state agencies, lenders and real estate agents educate and encourage home-shoppers to become homeowners.

Homeownership is critical for building strong communities, creating jobs, energizing the economy – and is often a good investment for homeowners over time.

Keep Your Home California was established as a result of the Great Recession. The goal was to help neighborhoods, communities, the economy and, of course, homeowners by providing mortgage payment assistance to people who suffered financial hardships in order to keep them in their homes.

So far, the federally funded, state-managed program has helped more than 64,000 homeowners avoid foreclosure since early 2011.

California Suburban Sprawl

Many of these families would have lost their homes, and it would have taken several years before they could have been eligible to apply for a mortgage and return to being homeowners. Some homeowners may have never been able to afford a home down the road, especially with fast-rising home prices and much-stricter lending requirements.

In fact, only one of every three families could afford to buy the median-priced home in California during the first quarter of 2016, according to the California Association of Realtors.

California’s homeownership rate was about 54% in 2015, much lower than the 61% in 2006 (considered the peak of the housing market) — and a full 10 percentage points below the 64% rate nationwide, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

In short, buying – and owning – a home in California is much tougher today than a decade ago.

So, Keep Your Home California’s financial assistance to hard-hit homeowners during the past several years is arguably just as important as helping first-time homebuyers. Perhaps even more.

Of course, many of the housing market problems continue to plague Californians.

Foreclosure Notice, House Keys and Model Home on Gradated Background with Selective Focus.

Foreclosures and short sales dominated headlines – and the housing market – from 2007 through 2012. While foreclosures have dropped from the highs of that time period, there were still 23,000 homeowners faced with losing their home and leaving their neighborhoods during the past year, according to the most recent CoreLogic report.

Even with the higher prices, unaffordable or underwater mortgages – where homeowners owe more than the value of their home — are still a concern for many homeowners, especially in the Central Valley, the Inland Empire (Riverside and San Bernardino counties) and Northern California. About 400,000 homes with mortgages are underwater in California, according to the most recent data.

California’s housing market has definitely improved, but it still has a long way to go for many homeowners. So, as we celebrate the efforts to help people become homeowners during Homeownership Month, we should also recognize the importance of homeownership preservation.

Keep Your Home California services are provided free of charge. The program helps homeowners faced with a financial hardship, such as a job loss, cut in pay, divorce, death or extraordinary medical benefits. Homeowners with unaffordable or underwater mortgages can qualify for the Principal Reduction Program, which offers as much as $100,000 on mortgage assistance.

Under the Unemployment Mortgage Assistance Program, out-of-work homeowners could receive as much as $3,000 per month for up to 18 months – or $54,000 total – in mortgage assistance. Homeowners must be eligible for jobless benefits. About 1 million Californians are unemployed, according to the Employment Development Department.

Homeowners must meet county-by-county income requirements, which range from more than $70,000 in rural areas to almost $130,000 in higher-priced regions, such as the Bay Area and Orange County. And a homeowner’s mortgage servicer, the company that collects the monthly payments, must participate in the program. More than 250 mortgage servicers – including Bank of America, Wells Fargo and Chase – are enrolled in Keep Your Home California.

Homeowners interested in learning more or applying for the program should call the counseling center at 888-954-5337 or find more information at www.KeepYourHomeCalifornia.org or at www.ConservaTuCasaCalifornia.org for Spanish speakers. The counseling center is open 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. weekdays and 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturdays. Calls can be taken in virtually any language through a free translation service.