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Essay

On Foreclosure Intervention Counseling

On Foreclosure Intervention Counseling
An Inquiry into Alienation, “Burnout” and Methodology

Memory&Desire
Springfield, MA
January, 2010

This essay attempts to reconcile the apparent alienation experienced by Foreclosure Intervention counselors which presents itself in symptom as “burnout”, “compassion fatigue” and other measures of “stress”. While I firmly believe that the problems presented are universal, each agency is unique, and due to the lack of a coherent service model, each agency presents a (sometimes radically) different explicit or (more often) implicit methodology. This inquiry is grounded in my experience with both ACORN Housing Corp. and my work as the sole Foreclosure Intervention counselor with Springfield NHS.

The Problem of the NFMC Program Model

The NFMC “model” is inherently flawed. This is, primarily, due to a conflict of systems where an inherently “assistive” program is evaluated and billed as an inherent, a-temporal “service”. The NFMC model sees each “client” as a mere single occurrence. While there has been effort to continually create and implement a more realistic and temporal-based work system through continued addendums and focus on “outcomes”, the minimum work from a counselor necessary for the $450 “billing” for each client is minimal: document collection and a single, one hour, “counseling session”. This encourages program directors to focus on “getting people through the door”, which translates in economic terms to a focus on quantity over quality.
This focus on quantity is no surprise. Our entire modern world acts on the assumption that quantity is inherently more valuable than quality. To use a seemingly unrelated example, the abundance of communication done via services such as Twitter act to provide the idea that small but frequent missives are more effective than well-thought and time-consuming explorations.
This approach killed the NFMC model well before funds were dispersed. Necessarily, agencies evaluated and designed their programs based around their ability to be paid for services rendered. This model, as stated, denies the economic necessity for an “outcome”− therefore the assumption, in our modern world, is that an “outcome” has no economic value, while the act of direct counseling and “giving hope” is elevated to the position of economic value.
This is immensely problematic from the position that a counselor is supposed to assist in the creation of favorable “outcomes”. If, in economic terms, the outcome lacks any value then the outcome itself is unnecessary. The value attached to “outcomes” is created non-economically by the emotions and desires of the borrower seeking assistance, is, inherently economically unquantifiable, and proves the largest issue with the NFMC model as a purely economic model.
We cannot, in any means, ignore the question of value as it is the motivator and goal of any action undertaken by a counselor. Any further motivation must come from the counselors, themselves, which opens the floodgates to an unregulated, inefficient and directionless focus on the outcome. An individual counselor will be motivated to “create” “favorable outcomes” by existing with private motivation within a power struggle that contains many different forces: willing obstruction of mortgage companies and emotional, non-economic appeals from borrowers; the needs of an agency to be paid for work deemed of value; the desires of a community to create stabilization and avoid blight. While this is a short list, it does (I believe) sketch out a general list of many of the larger players involved in the creation of motivation to obtain “favorable outcomes”. The point that, necessarily, must be addressed is that there exists no economic incentive for anything other than creating a “Foreclosure Intervention Turnstile” in which the quantity of new clients represents concretely the success of an agency’s Foreclosure Intervention program.
It comes as no surprise, then, that “burnout” and “compassion fatigue” is experienced by a striking number of counselors. There exists no actual, economic, basis for interest in a client’s well being. In a world governed solely by economic transactions and creation of arbitrary “value”, the absence of a value for outcomes is not surprising.
By ensuring that the economic transactions inherent within the NFMC Program are a-temporal and lack any sort of third dimension aside from basic, one-time, services the counselor is placed within an impossible and unsupported discourse on Foreclosure Intervention. The “official” interaction between value and services is so one-dimensional (that is, it lacks any depth past actions which are “billable”) that the stress and fatigue experienced by counselors can be easily placed at the hands of this nebulous and unsupported impetus for compassion and outcomes.
Now, let us be clear that we are experiencing a number of different centers of power push and pull at any given counselor’s larger sense of professional self-identity and self-worth. Yet the important aspects of this intersection will continually be, themselves, given value. Here is where we begin to see the germination of “compassion systems” which supplant the economic. A counselor’s individual compassion will occur in a number of forms from a number of sources. There is no single, concrete model for the implementation for compassion in Foreclosure Intervention counseling. This is problematic. A counselor can receive compassion from an innate and personal sense of social justice; from systematic and developed sympathy for borrowers; or, even, from an “outcome” based measure that provides an economic incentive. Each counselor, individually, must invest an immense amount of time, effort and ability into the effect of creating a suitable means of being “rewarded non-economically” for work which holds no economic value.
Without a clear economic framework, there is no inherent necessity for compassion. This is the crux of the problem.

Before moving further, it is important that we evaluate and explore the relationship between the various entities engaged in this larger discourse of “mortgage default and delinquency”. As named earlier, there are a number of “hands in the pot”, each with their own motivations, goals and tools. While (again, I remind) that there is no “set” or “static” discourse, a counselor is effected by the needs of multiple sources of power, some more visible than others. For our purpose we can look closer at three of these participants: mortgage serving companies, mortgage borrowers and Foreclosure Intervention counselors.
Mortgage borrowers are at the heart of any inquiry over the effect and proper place of counseling within this “crisis”. There are many problems and motivations that are brought to the table by borrowers, and it is these motivations which provide the greatest effect on the process. It is borrowers who provide the necessarily demand for service, and mortgage servicing companies who necessitate the service. While each borrower is, naturally, different and each situation and request for assistance is unique, there is a certain amount of consistency, theoretically, to create a glimpse into the basic drive which prompts the necessity of Foreclosure Intervention counseling. Borrowers need a number of services; primarily they require a mixture of education, facilitation and compassion. These three needs come in wildly varying forms. Education can take the role of teaching a borrower the effects and purposes of an escrow account for taxes and insurance; budget counseling; basic financial literacy, etc. Borrowers are often seeking facilitation services in which they desire a counselor to “speak on their behalf” or provide the necessity of “translating” the comments and directions provided by a mortgage servicing company. Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, borrowers are seeking compassion.
As a central tenet of this inquiry, compassion has taken on an almost mythical tone in this economic environment. From President Obama’s campaign for the 2008 Presidential election on the keyword “HOPE” to the sheer personal depression which often accompanies economic depression, a counselor’s most implicit and undefined role is to provide compassion. The existent manifestation of compassion within the Foreclosure Intervention process is most commonly seen as the “giving of hope” or as the “presentation of options”. This movement is directly in competition with the operational framework of mortgage servicing companies which we will discuss in a moment. The explicit manifestation of compassion (hope) provides an illusory dependence of a borrower on the actions and services provided by an agency providing Foreclosure Intervention counseling. This will, also, be further developed later on.
Mortgage servicing companies act as the antagonist within the Foreclosure Intervention process. Each movement in the dance which is “applying for assistance” is done in a seeming tango between those with power (mortgage servicing companies) and those without power (borrowers). To employ language I use to communicate this fact with borrowers, applying for assistance is primarily a process in which we react.
I wish to make clear, at this juncture, that I do not intend to critique the “banking industry” as a whole (as that would require many more pages than have been produced here) but, instead, to look closer at the relationship between these “players” in order to attempt to demystify the NFMC Program and its implications on Foreclosure Intervention counseling.
As the “antagonist” within this paradigm, mortgage servicing companies certainly hold the largest extent of “power” within this process. Now, to be clear, we discuss the “power” held by mortgage servicing companies in a traditional sense of the word. They hold the final and only ability to say “yes” or “no” to a homeowner’s request for assistance. There exists no party (outside of an expensive and specific legal framework) who can do more than a mortgage serving company to secure assistance for a borrower. This translates to the effect that a counselor is no more powerful than a homeowner.
It is, of course, the tools which a professional counselor “brings to the table” which creates value for both the mortgagor and mortgagee. The service provided by a counselor, while powerless to effect a final decision, provides a necessary bridge between the world of the servicing company and that of the borrower. A counselor acts to translate the emotional and practical (non-economic and economic) needs of the homeowner into terms and presentation to a mortgage servicing company which are strictly economical. The counselor is, at the core, a translator who deals in translating non-economic value into purely economic value for the mutual “benefit” of both mortgagor and mortgagee.

To diverge for a moment, I would like to be explicit in my explanation of a homeowner’s needs within this tripartite relationship as non-economical, as the common wisdom would, necessarily, object to this position. My reasoning is based on both the motivation and underlying need of the borrower to create and sustain a certain “standard of living” which is supported and made possible by economic concerns, but it truly a non-economical measure of any number of subjective measures. For example, the statement made by a borrower that “I have reduced hours from my job and require a modification to adjust my mortgage payment to reflect this loss of income” seems, at first glance, to be a purely economic need. I would argue that within the context of Foreclosure Intervention counseling this need is non-economic due to the implicit conditions which created the current culture of “mortgage modification”. While I am very clear that every situation within this industry is different, the most common “class” of borrower motivation is the wish to maintain a certain symbolic standard of living. For many borrowers in the past, the solution was simply to “sell the property” and easily reduce expenditure on housing costs either by downsizing the owned property or converting a housing need to non-mortgage arrangement. Within the context of the current “crisis” we are confronted by a staggering loss of value for homes. Selling a property has become impossible, and the economic need becomes lowering the payment.
This need is non-economical in its relation not to economy, but to the relation between borrower, counselor and mortgage servicing company. Even with a clear economic need, the motivation remains a desire to, for example, maintain a familial home. It is most often these emotional needs which provide the basis for appeals for assistance, regardless of the essential economic position of the situation. We are, in short, finding a consistent non-economical motivation for resolving an economic problem. This remains problematic as long as we assume that a homeowner is fully aware of the economic motivation, which is, in terms of compassion, generally not the impetus of a borrower’s decision to seek counseling.

So, to look back for a moment, we’re addressing an issue of the value of compassion within the translation of a non-economic borrower’s need into an economic need as evaluated and understood by a mortgage servicing company. It is no wonder that Foreclosure Intervention counselors are often left with burnout and compassion fatigue as the counselor’s stated role is far from the actual implantation of the services provided.
Indeed, it seems the primary issue that appears is that of the counselor’s implicit role in providing hope. As discussed earlier, the advent of hope within the process produces an essential alienation from the reality of the economic issue. Borrowers no longer act as agents, but as case-files and theoretical economic considerations as presented to a mortgage servicing company by a counselor. Yet their relationship to a counselor is generally driven by the emotional need to receive and gain hope for a suitable resolution (our problem of outcomes). At this same time, resolutions hold no economic value to either a mortgage servicing company or to a counselor, only to the borrower. In this case, we see the limitation of value rear its head in an amazing paradox of motivation to the counselor. On one hand counselors are given the emotional need of the borrower which is rooted in the necessity of resolution. On the other hand counselors are motivated by the value of counseling, which is shared neither by servicing companies nor the NFMC Program model.
As homeowners are shielded from the economic reality by the alienation of the economic through necessity of emotional appeal to a counselor, compassion and non-economical considerations are “lost” within the translation that is the essential work of the counselor. It is impossible for a counselor to approach a request for hardship assistance on an emotional basis, for without a demonstrated ability to pay there will be no resolution. At the same time, the few requests that are approached successfully by an emotional appeal remain, in reality, purely economic due to the fact that all decisions made by mortgage servicing companies must be made on economic grounds.
To illustrate the above point, a homeowner and mortgage servicing company will employ inverse causation to refer to a hardship in terms such as “My depression caused my reduction income”, whereas the translation through a counselor as presented to a mortgage servicing company is phrased as “There was a reduction in income caused by depression”.

To quickly redact the above into a plausible and concise statement, we can state that the NFMC Program model is insufficient to meet all involved parties’ needs due to the conflicting and opposing discourses necessary to complete a sufficient counseling program taking into account both economic (billing) and non-economic (outcome) needs. This conflict is situated in the paradoxical role of the counselor as a “translator” allowing communication (discourse) between a homeowner and mortgage servicing company in which the discourse is neither multiple nor singular. This causes a distinct discourse to evolve which attempts to meet the needs of both named parties, but is held in the differing terms of economic and non-economic, causing alienation between homeowner and mortgage servicing company.

With this in mind, the Foreclosure Intervention counselor is faced with a number of rather unpleasant conclusions. Most importantly, a counselor cannot help but become aware of the fundamental powerlessness that the position entails. This is exasperated by a conventional belief and system in which a counselor is directly affirmed to hold power. Now these statements are not existent in a vacuum, and a counselor does, indeed, hold a certain type of power, yet this is lateral power as opposed to power over a subject. The essential difference being that a counselor’s power is in the ability to translate the non-economical into the economical. Many borrowers approaching the issue of mortgage default and delinquency will find a veritable “stone wall” between themselves and their mortgage servicing company due to a fundamental difference in communication. To create further tension, mortgage servicing companies, as a generalized rule, are incapable of providing clear and concise information concerning the procedure of applying for assistance. This is, to qualify, an issue (again) of quantity versus quality. As our market necessities this triumph of quantity, the inevitable effect is to lower the essential quality of service in order to provide assistance at the lowest possible market-cost.
As the counselor continues to discover their lack of power through trial and error (as the myth of power over continues to dominate our landscape), nihilism is gradually formulated. This nihilism generally comes in the form of “burnout” and “compassion fatigue” which seem “all the rage” in any discussion of the terrors facing a Foreclosure Intervention counselor.
The conclusion that we are forced to come to is that both “burnout” and “compassion fatigue” are not, as presented popularly, an inherent aspect of Foreclosure Intervention counseling, but are, instead, a problematic by-product of the inherencies of the NFMC Program model for counseling. It is in the space between a homeowner and a mortgage servicing company that a counselor exists. It is also in this position between (that is, the tension between the inside and outside of each separate world) where we see the creation of negative effects upon the counselor. A counselor cannot exist in such flux, and cannot reconcile these two discourses without also creating immense paradox within the counselor’s own personal and professional function, the symptoms of which are “burnout” and “compassion fatigue”.

DIY Ethics and Foreclosure Intervention

I believe that there is much to be learned from this problem of the counselor’s “placement” within the relationship between mortgagor and mortgagee, and that this is a problem which is solvable with a few, simple changes to an agency’s methodology of operation.
The first step is to reevaluate the notion of value, and to eliminate the necessity for differing values to antithetically fight over the focus and attention of a counselor. Secondly, we must be honest concerning the effect and ability of counseling in relation to the mortgage servicing company’s power over, reconciling the lateral power as exhibited by counselors to more efficient use. Third, I would insist upon the reconciliation between a homeowner’s discourse and a mortgage servicing company’s discourse concerning requested hardship assistance.
As the goal of this inquiry is to minimize the effect of “burnout” and “compassion fatigue” within the framework of Foreclosure Intervention counseling, we must attack the alienation which causes this negative consequence and eliminate as entirely as possible.

The theoretical model I would put forth would be focused on addressing these issues and providing work that holds both economic and non-economic value.
From this place, the answer seems to exist in the elimination of the “counselor-as-middle-man” role which provokes the strongest alienation in counselors due to both the lateral power held by the counselor and the power over which is held by the mortgage servicing company.
Instead of leveraging imaginary power over the mortgage servicing company, a Foreclosure Intervention program must make use of the immense amount of knowledge, experience and practical, emotional concern which is apparent in this aspect of the profession. Instead of pretending (unintentionally) that the counselor is able to directly affect outcomes which hold no economic value to the agency, the counselor must repurpose their efforts by utilizing the same skills (primarily the translation of a request from non-economic to economic) in transmission to a homeowner. As both a counselor and a homeowner hold the same type of power over a mortgage servicing company (lateral), it is, therefore, more effective to provide a homeowner with the empowerment to exercise their own power to resolve the dispute, avoiding the alienation experienced by the counselor.
By approaching the translation as an internal, client-exercised volition the process of compounding the economic and non-economic needs of the “whole” homeowner, the homeowner becomes, indeed, “more whole”. The realization of both economic and non-economic needs within a borrower is the most invaluable approach to receiving assistance. A motivated borrower making an economic statement for assistance will have more success than a conflicted, alienated counselor seeking to manage the overly-full workload as dictated by the NFMC Program method. As the counselor currently “takes and internalizes” the emotional needs of a homeowner in order to construct an economic argument (leading to a “private struggle” for motivation of outcomes as evidenced in alienation), it follows that we must not “shelter” the borrower from the realities of the process if we wish to solve this problem.
Thus, I propose a program based on education as the foundation for success. By reuniting the economic and non-economic forces at work within the singular persona of the homeowner, we will be able to find a more effective and whole means of combating the issues faced by delinquent mortgagees. Such a program must be focused not on the creation not of a valueless outcome for the counselor, but on a valued outcome for the homeowner stemming from the work of the homeowner, him or herself. It is only be reconfiguring our theoretical approach to Foreclosure Intervention counseling that we may be able to create a truly unified approach to solving delinquency and default.
It is, in fact, this unity which we must seek. The current model assumes the tripartite division of a mortgagee’s needs and desires into a fractured and non-sensible means of approaching a problem. In the past, we have been too compassionate and too involved as an effect of our misguided need to help others. We must model our approach to the practical consideration of passing along the act of translation from the emotional to the economical. By eliminating the purpose of the counselor as the “middle-man-translator” we also effectively bring about the end to a relationship between client and counselor in which the homeowner is able to “wash their hands” of responsibility for the outcome. This is exemplary of the disconnected and illusory nature of this relationship between a homeowner’s value and a counselor’s outcome. We must rely not upon a valueless system of quantity, but on a valued system of mass quality. It appears apparent that group-setting, educational assistance is the answer to the problem of alienation as experienced by Foreclosure Intervention counselors.

Above all else, we must equip and prepare ourselves for the creation of knowledgeable and capable mortgage borrowers who will be able to respond to issues and problems as a coherent self and without the assistance of third-party intervention.

Addendum: On the Relation between Foreclosure Intervention Counselors and Mortgage Servicing Companies

Perhaps one of the largest issues surrounding Foreclosure Intervention Counseling is the economic relationship between counselors and servicing companies. While the conventional view of Foreclosure Intervention counseling is to posit that it is for the express assistance of homeowners, the NFMC Program funds operate in a much less ideal manner with a hidden immense benefit to mortgage servicing companies. In short, the funds presented to non-profit counseling agencies are necessarily most appreciated by the mortgage industry, itself. Foreclosure Intervention counselors provide an immense amount of service to the mortgage industry in, essentially, free labor on the government’s payroll. Not only has our government provided billions of dollars to large financial institutions without strings and at near non-existent interest rates, but they have facilitated the training, operation and employment for over 4,000 counselors who find themselves, more often than not, providing the very services that the mortgage servicing industry, themselves, should be expected to provide: document collection, explanation of hardship assistance programs, communication and evaluation.

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