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THE FINE PRINT

Behind on your mortgage? A new government program could offer relief.

Beach homes in Winthrop, Mass., on Jan. 28.JOSEPH PREZIOSO/AFP via Getty Images

If you are three months or more behind on your mortgage, and the root cause of it is the pandemic, there’s a government program that may pay off what you owe.

The goal of the program is to help homeowners who took a significant financial hit during the pandemic avoid foreclosure and possible loss of their house or condo.

Already, about 600 households statewide have received about $20,000 each under the program, including about 50 whose homes were saved after lenders had begun the process of foreclosing on them.

But the program is only just beginning. State housing officials say they hope to spare more than 7,000 households from foreclosure by the time the funding runs out, probably sometime next year.

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The money households receive does not need to be paid back.

“We’re doing everything we can to keep people in their homes,” said Maureen Flynn, of the Massachusetts Housing Partnership, a state housing organization that supports and finances affordable housing, who is helping run the program.

“It’s incredibly traumatic, stressful, and financially debilitating to lose your home,” she said. “It’s devastating to families and whole communities.”

The funding is contained in the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan, the Biden administration’s COVID relief bill passed by Congress in March 2021. It included $10 billion for homeowners in danger of losing their homes in a program called the Homeowners Assistance Fund.

Based on estimated need, Massachusetts was awarded $178 million, about 15 percent of which is earmarked for administrative costs. Numerous state housing agencies and nonprofits are involved in getting the money to those who need it.

The program has income restrictions, based on average median income, which vary by location across the state. It’s primarily intended to help people who have low incomes, though it is also available for people who have moderate incomes.

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Most of the money must go to people whose income is equal to, or below, average median income. In Boston, for a household of two, that means $112,500 annually or below. But for many parts of the state it means $75,300 or below. A household of two may qualify with income as high as $168,750 in Boston, and as high as $110,250 in other parts of the state.

So far, in Massachusetts, 90 percent of the 3,200 households that have filed applications for assistance have incomes equal to, or below, the average median income. That far exceeds the federal government’s mandate that at least 60 percent of those assisted be at, or below, average median income.

House or condo owners who are at least three months behind on their mortgages qualify for assistance. Flynn said most of the applications already approved are for households in much worse shape, usually about 12 months behind, with no apparent means of getting current on their mortgages.

The approved funds do not go to the homeowner, but instead directly to the lender or servicer of the mortgage. Accepting the money does not affect a homeowner’s credit rating.

A portion of the assistance can also be used to clear up other kinds of debts that threaten homeownership, including overdue property taxes, utility bills, and homeowner and condo fees.

Many households that may now qualify for assistance have managed to stave off foreclosure this long during the pandemic, in part, because of a state law that imposed a temporary moratorium on foreclosures in 2020.

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In addition, many in dire financial straits made agreements with their lenders to go into what’s called “forbearance,” which is the legal term for lender-approved suspension of mortgage payments. It gives homeowners protection from foreclosure, ruined credit, and late fees while they skip payments.

But forbearance does not go on indefinitely. Most have already expired — or are about to expire — after 18 months. And missed payments are not waived, forgiven, or erased. They have to be made up.

“These are people who just can’t” pay off what they owe, Flynn said of those targeted for assistance.

The Homeowners Assistance Fund is limited to households whose financial distress is directly linked to the pandemic, which, while shutting down many businesses and schools, had a particularly devastating impact on the most vulnerable.

According to the program’s criteria, a household may qualify for assistance if “you or someone in your household had their income go down, or living expenses go up, after Jan. 21, 2020, because of the pandemic.”

The criteria continues: “This includes job loss, fewer work hours, paying more for child care, illness, or being unable to work because you had to take care of a family member.”

In a state where only 35 percent of residents of color own homes, compared with about 70 percent of white residents, the prospect of declining homeownership among communities of color is of particular concern, housing officials say.

So far, a little more than 50 percent of applicants for assistance are described by the program as Hispanic, Black, Asian, Native American, or other, while less than half are described as white.

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Applications are in English and seven other languages: Chinese, Haitian Creole, Khmer/Cambodian, Portuguese, Russian, Spanish, and Vietnamese.

Those who are running the program in Massachusetts consider getting the word out to those most in need one of the biggest challenges. One new approach is a blast text message to more than 150,000 potential applicants and those who might be in contact with them, based on a list of phone numbers pulled together by community-based housing organizations, lenders, and others.

More information is available at www.massmortgagehelp.org or by calling 833-270-2953.

More traditional outreach is also being done.

“In some places, we are on the ground, knocking on doors, literally going door to door,” Flynn said.

So far, the municipalities with the most applicants are, in descending order, Springfield, Boston, Brockton, Worcester, Lynn, Lawrence, Chicopee, New Bedford, Randolph, and Fall River. But there are also rural areas in the central and western parts of the state experiencing acute need.

At least one application has been received from 95 percent of the state’s 351 municipalities.

The process of applying for assistance can be confusing and time-consuming — especially for households already hustling to make ends meet. But housing counseling is available.

Homeowners who are having trouble filling out the application can call the call center for assistance at 833-270-2953.


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