How an Illinois program is helping homeowners stay afloat during the pandemic
For Gerald and Camile Boyce, owning a home came later in life ─ around their late 50s to be more precise. They closed on their East Garfield Park home in August 2018 and the couple, who are now 65 and 59 years old, respectively, found the process surprisingly easy. Camile jokes that if they only knew, “We probably would have did it 15 years ago.”
Despite this they are proud to be first-time homeowners. “The timing was right for us,” Camile said.
But shortly after buying their house, the pandemic began and Gerald contracted COVID-19, which required Camile to stay home and take care of him.
This was when they found themselves in a tough situation. With no steady income, they were missing mortgage payments and needing to pick and choose which other bills to pay.
“It’s really bad,” Gerald said. “It affects everything because, let’s say for example, Christmas, you take some money here, then you can’t pay all your bills, and you got [gifts for] everybody, you got your grandkids and even my mom.”
It didn’t end there for the Boyces. Gerald faced other serious health issues ─ including a collapsed lung ─ and again, Camille stopped working to help take care of him.
When they reached out to the federal agency, the U.S. Department for Housing and Urban Development (HUD), for possible solutions, they were directed to The Resurrection Project (TRP) in Pilsen, an organization which provides housing and financial assistance, as well as other services to families in need. This step initiated the couple’s path back to financial stability.
The Boyces aren’t alone. Across Cook County, townships saw a median increase of 12% in COVID-related unemployment rates in 2020, according to the Cook County Assessor’s Office.
As a result, families across Chicago in circumstances like the Boyces were unable to keep up with bills, including their mortgage and other housing payments. In response, the Illinois Housing Development Authority (IHDA) started the Illinois Homeowner Assistance Fund (ILHAF). The fund would grant free assistance to qualified homeowners.
What is the Mortgage Assistance Program?
Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker announced in March 2022 the start of a mortgage-assistance program aimed at helping homeowners who have fallen behind on housing payments as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. In the initial round, qualified applicants could receive up to $30,000 of assistance sent directly to their mortgage servicers, taxing body or other approved entities.
Under the program, housing payments included fees such as mortgage, taxes and homeowner’s association fees.
The initial phase ran through May 31, 2022, but six months later in November 2022, it reopened for another round of applicants. In addition to this, the total grant was increased to $60,000 per applicant.
Organizations like TRP offer free application assistance to homeowners across Illinois who are looking for help. Salvador Garcia is the housing stability supervisor at TRP, who also helps organize their mortgage-assistance fund program. While he said the lack of awareness of the ILHAF program has made traffic to TRP slower than usual, they are still eager to reach as many families as possible.
“A lot of people are like, well, when does it end? I’m like, don’t worry about when it ends. How fast can you get in here? Because the truth of the matter is that this ends on January 31 , and we don’t want nobody to wait to the last day… the sooner we can get them in here, the better,” Garcia said.
The ILHAF application is currently still open “until funds are exhausted,” according to their website.
He added that to increase accessibility and remove barriers to the program, TRP exclusively took walk-ins. Following January 31, TRP assistance is available by appointment.
Once a person arrives, they are greeted by frontline staff who will check them in and ensure they have the correct paperwork. Applicants then meet with a counselor who will break down the process. They also assist with budgeting and financial questions.
“And then if you need to set up a username or password for the IHDA program, we’ll help you set that up,” Garcia said. “If you need to set up an email, we’ll set that up.”
Garcia added that homeowners do not need to be documented to qualify for assistance.
With this program aiming to help those most impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic, TRP’s location is especially ideal. The township of Lake, which covers most of the area which TRP primarily services, saw up to a 17% increase in COVID-related unemployment in 2020 according to the Cook County Assessor. These were the highest rates in Chicago that year.
Though the application may take up to six months to be approved by IHDA, when homeowners finish the program with TRP, they will receive a certificate of completion. This verification can help ensure an approval.
How to talk about money
Taking the first step towards recovery can be the most difficult. TRP said that often they see families who have dug themselves into worse situations because they were too embarrassed or didn’t know how to ask for help. Lizette Carretero, the director of financial wellness at TRP, also said there can be a lot of emotion involved in the recovery process.
“Money is such a big monster in the family, people don’t want to talk about it,” she said. “It’s a vulnerability component and so once you actually open up that can, we are able to really dive in and kind of digest, like all right, let’s talk about it black and white.”
Paul Howard is another homeowner who applied for assistance with the help of TRP. He’s been a homeowner in Chatham for almost 20 years and found value in the venture. “It’s been an experience but it’s worth it. I wouldn’t change it,” he said.
But when he found himself needing assistance, he didn’t rush to find help. It took extra encouragement from those in his life.
“You know, we all go through hard times. I’m kind of a private person, so it’s not as easy to share information but at some point, when they’re willing to help, it makes you like, okay, let me see what options I have,” he said.
The Boyces shared this sentiment and say that like many people, it took courage to initiate the process.
“It’s painful, because, you know, in my situation, I’ve really never asked people for help. And I find myself had to sometimes ask family members and you don’t want to burden them,” Gerald said.
In order to make people more comfortable, Carretero said they can meet with families in a private setting, offer a variety of options beyond the mortgage assistance program and continue to follow up with everyone who comes through their doors. But at the end of the day, “We’re not here to judge, we’re here to help,” Carretero said.
The impact of a little assistance
Statewide, 6,112 applications have been approved for a total amount of over $97.5 million as of February 26, according to the IHDA. The average amount of assistance each applicant receives is $15,953.
In the case of TRP, Garcia said about 135 families who applied with their help were approved in the initial round of applications. He added that their reach has extended beyond Chicago and into the suburbs like Zion to the north and Matteson to the south.
For the homeowners, though, the assistance can be the answer to their prayers. Howard let out a sigh of relief as he thought about what it would feel like to receive an approval letter. “It’s a blessing in itself … because I got a fresh start,” he said.
Whatever the reason may be for the hardship these families faced, they are all finding their way out of a vicious cycle. One that can weigh heavily on their lives and create extra stress. Families seeking out the help are just looking for a return to normal.
“We were first-time homeowners … who don’t want to lose our home … and it’s just, unfortunately this had happened,” Camile Boyce said. “It’s like, you know, once you get out one crisis another crisis comes up. So, we’re just trying to play catch up so that we can get back to normal.”
Today, things are looking up for the Boyces as Gerald is on the road to recovery alongside their journey back to financial stability. Their daughter, who still lives in Chicago, helps drive him to doctor’s appointments, while he often helps with babysitting the grandkids ─ something he says he always loves to do. They also visit Gerald’s mother, who lives on the North Side, but are still avoiding large gatherings and always remembering to wear their masks.
“It is all a team effort. It’s a family effort. You know, we try to help one another out,” she said.
From the team at their home to the team at TRP, with the goal of financial stability in mind, they are looking ahead.
As her eyes started to tear up, “[An approval] would be a relief,” Camile said.
Header illustration by Yù Yù Zander