Tall grass.

Homes in disrepair.

For-sale signs clustered in a single neighborhood.

Suburban leaders say they are concerned when they see
these things — red flags that foreclosure is looming, or that it has already
happened.

While elected officials say they can’t provide money to
solve residents’ woes, some are getting ready to have their village halls offer
other kinds of help. Entire communities can get a black eye from too many
foreclosed properties, they said.

Suggestions on how municipalities can prevent
foreclosures came at a recent meeting of the Metropolitan Mayors Caucus, which
has 272 members from the Chicago
area.

Many of the ideas presented were easy and free to
implement. For example, villages could provide links on their Web sites to
agencies that counsel distressed homeowners.

Round Lake Mayor Bill Gentes said it would make sense for
his village hall to be a resource for residents who find themselves facing
foreclosure.

Gentes’ village had 60 foreclosures, or 38.49 per 1,000
owner-occupied units, in 2006, according to data on the six-county Chicago area compiled by
the Woodstock Institute and distributed to government officials by the mayors
caucus. Last year was the first year town-by-town data was collected.

“The American dream is homeownership,” Gentes
said. “It’s not foreclosure.”

Mayors who attended the conference said suburban
officials are typically concerned about providing traditional services such as
police and fire protection. Whether they decide to help residents facing
foreclosure likely depends on if they believe the problem exists in their
communities.

Foreclosure has become a national concern. About 179,600
foreclosure filings were reported in the United States in July, above the
92,845 logged in the same month in 2006, according to California-based
RealtyTrac Inc.

Resetting of adjustable-rate mortgages and subprime loans
that were made to borrowers with shaky credit are among the reasons for the
foreclosure boom.

Beth Dever, housing director for the Metropolitan Mayors
Caucus, said foreclosures don’t affect just the families forced out of their
houses. There are the ancillary effects on cities, she said, such as unruly
lawns, delinquent property taxes, the potential for neighborhood blight — and
tarnished images of a town.

Dever said because municipalities have a vested interest
in foreclosure, local governments should lend a helping hand to distressed
homeowners, who don’t always know where to turn. She said some mayors reported
their village halls have already received calls from worried residents.

At minimum, Dever said, towns should be able to direct
distressed homeowners to federal Department of Housing and Urban
Development-certified counseling agencies. Towns also should know to recommend
the Homeownership Preservation Foundation’s HOPE hotline for confidential
financial help.

Dever said residents might be more willing to approach a
village hall for help.

“I think it’s seen as a more comforting local entity
than a faceless mortgage broker,” she said.

Research shows about 50 percent of delinquent homeowners
avoid contact with the lender in the hope the problem disappears, according to NeighborWorks Center
for Foreclosure Solutions in Washington,
D.C.
Many in trouble don’t act on
quality advice.

Sheila McCann, executive director of the DuPage Homeownership
Center, said some DuPage County
towns allow her nonprofit group to use public buildings for homeownership
seminars.

“It’s a win-win for everybody in the
community,” she said. “Certainly, everyone doesn’t want to see
abandoned homes or foreclosures.”

Gentes said he’s concerned about one Round Lake
subdivision now marked by abandoned homes, clusters of for-sale signs and other
signs of distress.

Problems at the four-year-old Lakewood Grove subdivision,
near Route 60 and Cedar Lake Road,
stem in part from individual investors who bought a number of homes with the
idea of unloading them for a quick profit, Gentes said. He said 10 to 15 homes
have been abandoned at Lakewood Grove.

Some investors purchased houses and used a rent-to-own
concept to lure occupants with poor or shaky credit. Gentes said the downfall
came when the owners dramatically hiked the monthly payments because of higher
taxes, sending the residents fleeing and leaving empty homes.

Gentes said he’s seen newspapers and trash pile up at homes
where no one’s living. That can make the whole town look bad, not just a
particular subdivision.

Dever said the mayors caucus has cited Chicago as an example of a city trying to
prevent foreclosures through its Home Ownership Preservation Initiative. The
program has been promoted on CTA buses and trains.

Part of it involves assisting borrowers connect with
lenders to find ways to halt the foreclosure process. The city also has gone to
faith-based organizations to spread the word about mortgage fraud.

Mayors such as Gentes have a better picture about
foreclosures because the 2006 foreclosure report by the Woodstock Institute was
its first city-by-city examination. The study was requested by Chicago‘s housing department.

Geoff Smith,
research director of the nonprofit group that specializes in community economic
development, said mayors can’t take action about a foreclosure problem if they
don’t know what’s happening in their backyards. He said the Woodstock Institute
will release a second city-by-city foreclosure study at year’s end, which can
be compared to the 2006 data.

Carpentersville Village President Bill Sarto said he’s
willing to have his town provide information to residents in trouble with their
homes. Carpentersville had 212 foreclosures or
30.26 per 1,000 owner-occupied units in 2006.

“I certainly see it as a problem for all communities
where people are on the bubble or the bubble has burst beneath them,”
Sarto said.

Tips for avoiding foreclosure

Don’t ignore the problem: The further behind you become,
the harder it will be to save your home.

Contact your lender: Lenders do not want your house. They
have options to help borrowers through difficult financial times.

Open and respond to mail from your lender: The first
notices you receive will offer good information about foreclosure prevention
options. Later mail might include important notice of pending legal action.

Understand your options: Learn about foreclosure
prevention options at www.fha.gov/foreclosure/index.cfm. Contact a HUD-approved
housing counselor: The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development funds
free or very low-cost housing counseling nationwide. Call (800) 569-4287 or TTY
(800) 877-8339.

Avoid foreclosure prevention companies: Many for-profit
companies will contact you promising to negotiate with your lender. While these
may be legitimate businesses, they will charge you a hefty fee (often two or
three months’ mortgage payment) while a HUD-approved housing counselor will
help for free if you contact them.

Don’t lose your house to foreclosure recovery scams: If
any firm claims they can stop your foreclosure immediately if you sign a
document appointing them to act on your behalf, you may well be signing over
the title to your property and becoming a renter in your own home. Get
professional advice from an attorney, a trusted real estate professional or a
HUD-approved housing counselor.

Where to turn

NeighborWorks America and the Ad Council have
joined forces to target a public service advertising campaign at homeowners in
danger of foreclosure. Two Web sites and a toll-free number are offered.

• Confidential financial counseling is available from the
Homeownership Preservation Foundation’s HOPE hotline at 1 (888) 995-HOPE. Free,
unbiased advice is available in English and Spanish 24 hours a day.

• Foundation’s Web site is at
www.foreclosurehelpandhope.org. The foundation is a Minneapolis-based nonprofit
agency dedicated to preserving homeownership and preventing foreclosure.

• Also check NeighborWorks America‘s Web site at www.nw.org/foreclosuresolutions.
NeighborWorks is a national nonprofit organization created by Congress to
provide financial support, technical assistance, and training for
community-based revitalization efforts.