Sixty Harford County residents lost their homes last month to mortgage foreclosure, bringing the total to 320 so far this year, officials said.
With foreclosures up 13 percent this year, officials are acting to curb what they call a startling increase in defaults on mortgages.
Harford County Executive David R. Craig said last week that residents facing foreclosure should seek help immediately from the county's housing agency.
Counselors certified by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development will work with families in crisis. The counselors, who saw more than 80 families last month, can offer advice on a homeowner's rights and obligations and work with lenders to reach a manageable payment solution.
Their counseling is provided free to those who need help.
"These are trying times for government, but also for individuals," Craig said. "We all know someone who has been affected by this economic downturn, and those numbers are growing at a rapid pace. We want to give citizens resources to make the best decision possible in their own situations."
Attorneys with the county's law department will continue to provide assistance to the housing agency and help identify any mortgage scams, officials said. The Department of the Treasury will allow those who have fallen behind in their property tax payments to enroll in a deferred tax program. Applications will be available Feb. 1.
Early action is critical, officials said. Because homeowners receive ample warning of a lender's impending action, there is time to turn the tide.
"We can have success if you come in early," said Shawn Kingston, director of the county's housing agency. "The sooner you get help, the more likely you are to work out an agreement with your lender."
Rob McCord, county attorney, said new foreclosure laws give homeowners more time to deal with problems. Still, many fail to take advantage of the time and fall further into debt.
"Lenders have to give you time to get your house in order," he said. "Seek help. Renegotiate with your lender. The sooner you contact your lender, the sooner you will be on your way to getting help."
His office will prosecute those who take unfair advantage of those in mortgage crisis, he said. He urged residents to be wary of predatory mortgage and bankruptcy scams.
"We will support the housing agency and do everything we can to help people in need," McCord said.
Housing counselors can often persuade lenders to modify interest rates and reduce the monthly payment, said Wanda L. Bhola, housing services coordinator.
"There are any number of payment arrangements we can work on," she said. "There also are a lot of state and federal programs available. We also can help people set up a realistic budget, based on needs instead of wants."
The Department of Community Services is also applying for federal grants to assist homeowners in financial crises.
About 100 residents took advantage of a property tax deferral last year, a contractual agreement that involves a monthly payment schedule, said John Scotten, county treasurer.
"The last thing we want to do is take a home from someone," Craig said. "We want Harford County residents to keep their piece of the American dream."
Craig organized the press conference to make residents aware of the assistance that is available, after receiving numerous e-mails from distressed homeowners.
"Foreclosure does not happen overnight," he said. "We can offer intermediaries who know the law and help you through the process."
He ended his remarks on an optimistic note.
"Help is coming to our citizens," Craig said. "Some of them are just getting a little behind, but they are not through fighting."