When Caylin Barter, a second-year law student at the University of Arizona, talks to homeowners saddled with high mortgage payments, she has an idea about what they're going through.
Barter bought a home in Reno, Nev., in August 2005. She then watched as the market crumbled and the value of her house evaporated. In the end, she got rid of her house in a short sale, where a bank agrees to sell the property for less than is owed on the mortgage.
"It was bewildering for me and I feel like I'm a relatively savvy buyer and a relatively savvy negotiator," she said.
Barter and other UA law students are participating in a new program that aims to help homeowners facing foreclosure. The students spend 12 hours a week providing assistance at Southern Arizona Legal Aid's mortgage clinic.
There they talk (without directly providing legal advice; after all, they're not yet lawyers) to homeowners about what led to their financial situation and what options they have.
Often, Barter said, these are people who've lost jobs or are struggling with medical bills. They're also burdened by extensive credit-card debt.
"These are people who are at risk of losing absolutely everything," she said.
Andrew Vanell, another second-year law student, worked in bank training loan offices in the years leading up to the mortgage crisis. He said he clearly remembers the financial climate - where borrowers were encouraged to consolidate debt using the equity in their homes - that got many people into their current situation.
"Everybody was sort of caught up in the moment," he said.
The students help homeowners plan a budget and they provide information about various loan modification programs. They discuss options, such as a short sale, that allow homeowners to leave their property under conditions more favorable than foreclosure.
Along with providing assistance at Southern Arizona Legal Aid, the students take a course on the mortgage crisis taught by Professor Jean Braucher.
The program is funded by the Arizona Attorney General's Office, with cash obtained through a state settlement with mortgage lenders.
The course outlines the larger components of the national crisis and provides details about Arizona mortgage law. Braucher also teaches them about modification programs and touches on bankruptcy law.
Because Arizona has a nonjudicial foreclosure process - which means a lender can sell a delinquent borrower's house at auction without going to court - a bankruptcy filing can be a crucial way to slow the process down, Braucher said. Then, under bankruptcy court scrutiny, the homeowner's attorney can examine if there were any missteps in the foreclosure process or if any fraudulent lending took place.
While bankruptcy is often brought up as an option by those faced with the prospect of losing their home, it doesn't work in every situation, said Lydia Glasson, an attorney with Southern Arizona Legal Aid.
"There's a misconception that filing bankruptcy saves your home," Glasson said.
A bankruptcy filing can help in certain situations, but Glasson said it's important to cover all of a homeowner's options and the consequences of each one.
The students, who received training before working with any homeowners, are a welcome sight in the office, Glasson said. "There's much more demand for our services than we can provide," she said.
On top of that, the students are getting direct experience working with clients and learning how to ask them challenging questions, Braucher said.
So far, students have shown significant interest in the course and had to apply to enroll in it, Braucher said.
They're interested in finding out more about what led to the economic mess we now find ourselves in. And while homeowners are expected to shoulder their responsibility, there's few resources available to them.
"So much blame is being put on the homeowners," said Barter. That's why she decided to use some of her skills to help them.
Southern Arizona Legal Aid can provide assistance to homeowners struggling with mortgage payments if they meet certain income guidelines. For more information go to www.sazlegalaid.org or call 1-800-640-9465.
Contact reporter Dale Quinn at firstname.lastname@example.org or 573-4197.