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THE FINE PRINT

Federal relief is on the way for homeowners struggling to pay their mortgages

The federal aid is intended to keep people in their homes.
The federal aid is intended to keep people in their homes.ROBYN BECK/AFP via Getty Images

For anyone who is struggling to pay their mortgage due to loss of income during the pandemic, help may be on the way.

Over the next couple of months, $180 million will begin flowing into Massachusetts to help homeowners pay their mortgages and avoid foreclosures, under a federal program called the Homeowner Assistance Fund.

Lewis Finfer, a longtime advocate with Massachusetts Communities Action Network, said most of the money will be used to get mortgages current, but funds can also be used for back taxes and overdue utility bills, which also threaten homeownership.

Finfer said the money is contained in the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan, passed by Congress and signed by President Biden in March. He said it could help tens of thousands of Massachusetts homeowners adversely affected by the pandemic.

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But getting access to that money can be confusing, tedious, and time-consuming — especially for households already hustling to make ends meet.

Nonprofit housing groups are beginning to train their ground-level troops on how to reach homeowners who are in distress, and how to guide them through a bureaucratic and technical process.

“The biggest hurdle may be finding the help you need, because these things can be complicated,” said Andrea Bopp Stark, staff attorney with the Boston-based National Consumer Law Center.

The worst mistake for anyone having trouble paying their mortgage would be to do nothing, Stark said.

To those who are struggling, Stark offers two pieces of advice: Call your mortgage servicer — today, if possible — and enlist help from a housing counselor who is trained and certified by the US Department of Housing and Urban Development. Services provided by HUD’s housing counselors are free to those in need.

More than 40 housing counseling agencies in Massachusetts are listed online.

About 3 million homeowners are behind on their mortgages, but about 2 million of them have forbearance, according to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.

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Forbearance is the legal term for lender-approved suspension of your mortgage payments. It gives homeowners temporary protection from foreclosure, ruined credit, and late fees while they skip payments.

But forbearance does not go on indefinitely. For the many homeowners who were approved for forbearance last summer, their period of suspended payments may be ending in the next few months.

Missed payments are not waived, forgiven, or erased. They have to be made up somehow. And it’s up to the homeowner to negotiate a plan with the mortgage servicer.

Yet mortgage servicers are about to be inundated with requests for extensions of forbearance or approval of repayment plans. That’s why it’s a good idea to call now to begin a conversation, one that probably should include discussion of possible help from the Homeowner Assistance Fund.

Besides HUD housing counselors, another important resource is legal aid services, which also provide free help on housing issues. They are online at masslegalhelp.org.

And yet another key resource is the Citizens’ Housing and Planning Association, known as CHAPA and online at chapa.org.

In Massachusetts, more than 20 percent of homeowners say they have at least moderate doubt about being able pay next month’s mortgage, including 2 percent who say have no confidence in their ability to pay, according to a Census Bureau survey conducted last month.

That means more than 400,000 households are less than totally confident of paying their mortgages.

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Many of those households are in communities of color in such places as Boston, Brockton, Chelsea, Chicopee, Everett, Holyoke, Fall River, Lawrence, Lowell, Malden, New Bedford, Quincy, Springfield, and Worcester.

In a state where only 35 percent of residents of color own homes, compared to about 70 percent of white residents, the prospect of declining homeownership among communities of color is of particular concern, said Thomas Callahan, executive director of the Massachusetts Affordable Housing Alliance.

“Our mission is to close that racial homeownership gap,” Callahan said.

Rose Webster-Smith is executive director of Springfield No One Leaves, which was formed in response to widespread foreclosures during the financial crisis that began in 2008. She said the needs in Western Massachusetts are acute.

“We had a housing crisis before COVID,” she said. “If we’re not careful, it could now explode.”





Got a problem? Send your consumer issue to sean.murphy@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @spmurphyboston.