Dozens of foreclosure complaints are filed daily with the Lucas County Clerk of Courts against homeowners who might have a chance to keep their homes through a county-sponsored mediation service.
"From the client's perspective, it was extremely difficult to actually get the mortgage company to answer the requests, down to something as simple as finding a human to answer the phone," attorney Thomas Piggott said.
That's when Mr. Piggott sought out mediation for his clients.
Available in Lucas County since June, foreclosure mediation is aimed to help bring the parties together to work out a possible resolution to the case short of foreclosure.
In cases where homeowners can't afford to stay in their home, mediation can help create a suitable exit plan.
There are some situations where mediation doesn't work at all, officials said. But the option has given some homeowners new hope that a notice in the mail doesn't mean moving out.
"Period, end of discussion; it works," Mr. Piggott said.
"And the reason for that is a bit of fear in the [company] now that somebody is looking at this actively and will hold their feet to the fire in that if the magistrate refers this back to the judge with an opinion that the plaintiff is not being responsive, the judge can dismiss the claim."
All 88 Ohio counties have foreclosure mediation available, said Jacqueline Hagerott, manager of the Dispute Resolution Section for the Ohio Supreme Court.
Many use a program model for foreclosure mediation that was developed by the Dispute Resolution Section a year ago in response to the rising mortgage crisis in the state, she added.
Although more foreclosure cases continue going to mediation statewide, it is difficult to gauge the success of mediation programs.
In Lucas County, 198 cases are pending on the foreclosure magistrate's docket.
Since the beginning of the program, an additional 120 cases have been settled in some fashion and returned to the Common Pleas Court judges who initially referred them.
Mari Taoka, the foreclosure magistrate, was hired in May to offer part-time mediation services for the county.
Last month, the position was made full time.
Over the first few months of the program's existence, officials were "figuring out the details" of the program, she said.
Now, dozens of local attorneys have offered pro bono services, the judges continue to support the concept of mediation, and homeowners and mortgage companies are coming to the table.
Every homeowner is alerted to the option of mediation when he or she receives a notice of foreclosure filing from the court.
"I want to do as many cases as I possibly can and get a settlement, whether it's staying in the house or not staying in the house," Ms. Taoka said.
"People are working with me. It's stressful for the [home-
owner.] Their expectations are high, but their fear is even greater."
The number of foreclosures has steadily increased over five years, jumping from 2,492 in 2005 to 4,093 last year, according to the clerk's office. In January, 315 foreclosures were filed.
Attorney James Goranson represents several banks. He said that while banks cannot subsidize a bad economy when homeowners can't afford their homes, reputable lenders are interested in working something out if possible.
"There are those situations when [Ms. Taoka] sees it's not going to work. There are those where it is very successful and because of [Ms. Taoka] and mediators, the debtor is able to reach a real person," Mr. Goranson said, adding that a new local rule instituted by the judges requires a person [from the lender] to be available, and if not, she schedules a hearing and forces them to arrive."
Most cases that go to mediation will return to the judge's docket without a settlement reached.
But there are several that will, said Chris DelFavero, mediation coordinator for Northwest Ohio Court Mediation Services, a program that covers Henry, Fulton, Defiance, Paulding, Putnam, and portions of Williams counties.
Mr. DelFavero said a year ago, he rarely would mediate foreclosure claims.
Last spring, he was dealing with three or four foreclosure mediations a month.
Now, he said, there are three or four a week that are referred to mediation. The program, he added, gives many people an option.
"A lot of people, at least a year ago, wouldn't even answer the phone. Or they'd call the bank and never get an answer," he said. "I think as the word gets out, people are less afraid and at least are more willing to deal with it because they know it's happening to everybody."
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