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Article updated: 11/16/2012 12:13 PM

Elgin housing agency helps families secure the American dream

By Tara García Mathewson

Evelio Villanueva started to get behind on his bills when his wife got sick. In early 2009 he tried to get a loan modification from his bank but was denied. Two years later he lost his job and the need for some type of mortgage relief on his South Elgin home was critical.

Villanueva went to Neighborhood Housing Services in Chicago first but was later directed to the Elgin office, where he ultimately got help to reduce the interest rate on his mortgage from 7.9 percent to 2 percent.

"They give you hope, they talk to you, they listen to your situation," Villanueva said. "Thanks to them, I've been back on my feet."

NHS of Elgin existed for decades before 2007, when NHS of the Fox Valley was borne of negotiations between Neighborhood Housing Service of Chicago and the City of Elgin. The local branch is now a satellite office for the Chicago organization.

Johnny Placeres joined the agency as its director in 2007. He said the mission of NHS of the Fox Valley is to create opportunities for homeownership, improve people's lives and strengthen neighborhoods. For the last five years, much of the focus has been on saving people from foreclosure.

The next five years, though, depend on how the community changes. Maybe foreclosures won't be the top issue down the road.

"We have to tailor our services to the needs of the community," Placeres said.

Besides helping people negotiate loan modifications from banks, NHS of the Fox Valley offers homebuyer education classes, pre-purchase counseling and foreclosure prevention counseling and also works as a mortgage lender in Elgin and Carpentersville.

The agency works closely with Elgin and Kane County governments -- Elgin Mayor David Kaptain is the chairman of its advisory board and NHSFV administers the Kane County first-time homebuyer down payment program.

Kaptain said NHS of the Fox Valley's impact on the community reaches in the millions of dollars. By its own count, NHSFV has saved 230 families from foreclosure, counseled 780 families at the risk of foreclosure and educated more than 850 families through homebuyer education classes.

And Kaptain points to the agency's twice-per-year Neighborworks programs as being key. NHS of the Fox Valley chooses a focus neighborhood, finds seniors or low-income people in need of the extra help and gathers more than 100 volunteers to do maintenance or beautification projects on those properties. The City of Elgin contributes funding to the project, giving volunteers the ability to make more major repairs.

"A neighborhood is defined not by the best house in it, but the worst house," Kaptain said. "If you can fix up the worst house, you can improve the neighborhood."

Kaptain said the Neighborworks events put pride back into the community -- both for those who are volunteering and those benefiting from the work.

"I've worked in neighborhoods for more than 20 years and I've seen a lot of programs," Kaptain said. "I don't think I've ever seen a program that impacts a neighborhood as much as that one."

Looking forward to the agency's future, Placeres said it will continue to counsel homeowners and help people achieve that key component of the American dream.

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