Step Forward Program offers no-interest loans to residents facing foreclosure

BERRIEN COUNTY — St. Joseph resident Mark Krager built his home by hand and has lived there for 23 years. Krager suffers from a back injury and is also on disability, contributing to his inability keep up with the property tax payments, putting him in jeopardy of losing his home.

On Wednesday, Krager was one of several to attend an informational meeting at the Berrien County Administration Building for the federally funded Step Forward Program, which seeks to help people like Krager get back on their feet.

Berrien County Treasurer Bret Witkowski and Van Buren Treasurer Karen Makay joined Earl Poleski, the executive director of the Michigan State Housing Development Authority, which oversees the program, to urge residents across the state facing foreclosure to take advantage of the no-interest loan program, which offers up to $30,000. The loan covers property tax, mortgage and condo payments — or combination — and is paid directly to the mortgage company or treasurer.

To qualify, residents must own their home and have experienced a hardship such as a death in the family, layoff, divorce or medical injury, among other qualifying events. To begin the process, those interested can visit stepforwaredmichigan.org or call toll free (866) 946-7432. Local treasurers will also be available to answer questions.

Those who utilize the program will only be covered for the amount they owe. The loan is eligible for forgiveness if the resident stays in his or her home for a period of five years. The loan is forgiven at a rate of 20 percent of the amount borrowed per year.

“The idea is to help people stay in their houses,” Poleski said.

Mary Townley, the director of the homeownership division for MSHDA, said the economy suffers when residents lose their home to foreclosure, driving down property values and making the property vulnerable to vandalism.

Witkowski echoed this statement.

“This is a great opportunity for people to stabilize their home and personal lives,” Witkowski said. “We do not benefit as an economy by having properties that need to be foreclosed on. There is a repercussion.”

The state began offering the funds from the federal program in 2010 as part of the Troubled Assets Relief Program, which was signed into law in 2008. From July 2010 to October 2017, the program has doled out nearly $3.3 million for property tax and mortgage loans, assisting 384 homeowners facing foreclosure. In Cass County, more than $1 million has been disbursed for the same purposes, helping 118 homeowners. According to Townley, 38,000 homeowners across Michigan have been aided by the program since its inception.

According to Townley, some of the grant was spent on blight remediation. About $38 million of the Step Forward grant is left statewide and must be spent by 2020.

“We want to make sure that gets expended as appropriate,” Poleski said. “We wanted to let people know about it.”

Those who wish to apply but do not have a computer can answer the application questions over the phone by calling the toll-free number. Residents were also reminded that they are permitted to use a public computer that is available at the Berrien County administration office, 701 Main St. in St. Joseph.

Following the meeting, the less than a dozen in attendance were invited to ask questions.

For Krager, the program offers some hope, he said.

“I don’t want my home to go,” Krager said.

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