Do Good: Home Repair Services helps build strong, stable neighborhoods

Local nonprofit Home Repair Services goes beyond financial counseling and hammer-and-nail projects to empower homeowners in West Michigan. As the snow continues to fall, John Wiegand checks in with the organization on frozen pipes and foreclosure prevention.
The word "home" often conjures images of warm, supportive places that come together to create strong and vibrant communities. But for some lower-income families facing foreclosure, critical repair needs or other challenges, those feelings can be replaced by stress and fear. Since 1979, Home Repair Services (HRS) has offered several assistance programs for struggling homeowners seeking clarity. HRS hosts a myriad of different services, ranging from a financial counseling program and a professional home repair team to teaching home ownership and remodeling classes.
"We work with people who have made the commitment to home ownership," says Stan Greene, HRS's Resources Development Manager. "They've made a commitment to their neighborhoods and they've made commitments to being successful homeowners."
During the last decade, the housing crisis has left numerous families throughout Kent County facing foreclosure. From 2004 to 2009, 1 in 9 homes in Kent County went into foreclosure, according to a Foreclosure Response Report for the Grand Rapids area published in 2009. While the number of foreclosure rates has declined in Kent County during the last five years, there is still a steady stream of people who struggle with the threat of losing their home.
Through the confusion and stress that cripple families dealing with foreclosure, HRS offers their Financial Counseling Program to guide them through the process of keeping their home. The program works with families in Kent County who are facing potential mortgage, land contract or tax foreclosures.
"The Financial Counseling Program has been operating for 13 years, so this program really has weathered the foreclosure crisis. We were there before it got big and we have been there through it," says Tracie Coffman, the Financial Counseling Program Manager for HRS.
The program gives families the opportunity to meet with certified and experienced counselors to help them examine their situation. The counselors sit down for an in-depth conversation with the families to learn what brought them to their crisis and determine whether they can avoid the foreclosure. An integral part of this process involves financial counseling program representatives working with banks or mortgage holders to renegotiate the homeowner's loan, as well as finding the assistance programs they qualify for.
In 2011, Bruce Ling, the Founder of Hawks and Owls String Band and self-employed electrician, found himself facing the reality of foreclosure. Being self-employed and experiencing a slow period, he was falling behind in his payments. After two missed payments, he received a letter from his mortgage holder informing him that he would be going into foreclosure. He was directed to HRS, where he met with the financial counselors.
"They told me to come in and I spoke with a representative who, while I was there, called my mortgage holder and negotiated my interest rate from 11.5% down to 5%," says Ling. "They also had the past two missed payments forgiven and tacked on to the back of the mortgage, so I didn't have to worry about anything. That saved the day and I was able to go back to planning the Grand River Water Festival and continue to teach my students."
Providing needed financial counseling services means more to HRS than renegotiating interests rates. For them, it is only a step in the process of establishing and maintaining healthy and stable neighborhoods. 
"Preventing the foreclosure is the goal. We want to maintain homeowners," says Coffman. "But we also want to prevent foreclosures for the community's benefit. A foreclosed home is going to sell for less, it could also potentially become an abandoned home and those situations can really affect the neighbors and the surrounding neighborhood in that community. So maintaining property values and safe, vibrant neighborhoods is what we are actually doing by preventing foreclosures."
HRS gives homeowners and families the tools they need and empowers them to end their home-related worries and return to their normal lives. They believe in the power of homeownership and in creating stable communities.
"There is a great deal of wringing your hands that goes on when you have a very large corporate entity breathing down your neck and you are at their mercy," says Ling. "Home Repair Services definitely helped me be a contributing member of the community through relieving the stress of losing my home."
HRS also strives to promote community stability through their Home Repair Team. This program sends professional service technicians to peoples' homes that require critical repairs. The service is provided by subcontractors and volunteers, which allows the cost to the homeowner to be around 20-25% of the job's total cost. During times of severe weather, like the area has experienced recently, the need for urgent repairs is heightened.
"With the severe weather that we've had recently, we've been getting calls saying, 'I turned on my faucet and the water isn't coming, I think my pipes might be frozen.' Or, 'my furnace isn't working.' There is a steady demand for the kinds of services that require a skilled tradesperson, says Greene. "There is a pride that comes from a neighborhood or a community that are maintaining their homes and encouraging others to maintain their homes."
Get Involved:
-       Support Home Repair Services by contributing to their program.
-       Volunteer with Home Repair Services by sharing your handyperson skills and passion for remodeling.

John Wiegand is an intern at Rapid Growth Media.
Images: Courtesy of Home Repair Services
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