Q&A: Open Communities CEO Cheryl Lawrence on Homeowner Assistance Fund


Illustration by Olivia Abeyta

Open Communities works to set up Evanston residents with mortgage assistance through the Homeowners Assistance Fund. The Daily spoke with CEO Cheryl Lawrence.

Avani Kalra, Audience Engagement Editor

Fair housing agency Open Communities is working to set up Evanston residents who have fallen behind in their mortgage payments with support through the Illinois Emergency Homeowners Assistance Fund.  The Daily spoke with Cheryl Lawrence, the organization’s Chief Executive Officer, to learn more about how the fund works and how Open Communities is reaching residents. This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.

The Daily: How did Open Communities begin its campaign to connect residents with mortgage payments?

Lawrence: What we do is a very lengthy process. There’s a fund right now in Illinois of about $300 million that is going to be dispersed through this application. For homeowners who are behind in their mortgage, in their taxes, behind in their Homeowners Association fees or a few other things, they can get relief up to $30,000.

Open Communities acts as the (U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development) certified housing counseling agency that helps people collect the numerous documents that they need to collect. We provide housing counseling, because a housing counseling certificate is one of the requirements for the program. Otherwise, clients can get a letter from their lender or they can get a letter from Legal Aid. 

There’s numerous documents and they have to go through a housing counseling session. Then we help people fill out the application and submit it to the government.

The demand is way higher than before. Up to this point, we have helped about 70 people process applications. 

The Daily: How have you seen the need for these programs change throughout the course of the pandemic and in recent months?

Lawrence: We’ve come to the end of a lot of individual support now that the moratorium has been lifted. For renters and homeowners who’ve been in forbearance, everything is due now. So this is a push to help prevent foreclosures, since many people can wind up going into foreclosure without owing that much money. 

It may not be just a mortgage payment, it may be a mortgage payment and taxes they need help with. $30,000 is very helpful to many people, but it’s also a last resort, right? Homeowners have to show that they’ve tried other options, like loan modifications.

The Daily: Have you seen your client base change at all during the pandemic? Do you find your customer base has grown? 

Lawrence: The issues are still the same, there are just more of the issues. With home prices increasing so dramatically during the pandemic, it makes affordable housing even harder to find. People are being displaced out of their homes or out of their rental situations, so finding affordable housing has never been harder than it is today. 

This was going on even before the pandemic, but what used to be a low-income problem is now a middle-class problem as well. These issues are not just primarily in lower income, it’s moving up the economic scale. So a lot of the people that we’re helping with in the Homeowner Assistance Fund are not necessarily low-income individuals.

The Daily: Open Communities’ current mission is to promote an adjusted inclusive community in the north suburbs. Overall, what does that look like to you? What is Open Communities’ ultimate goal?

Lawrence: Ultimately, if people work in our communities, they should be able to live in our communities. And though Open Communities’ endeavors to create active education and discussions, we’re primarily a fair housing organization.

Our goal is to build projects within the community with landlords with other communities so that we know where the affordable housing is. We’re teaching landlords how to comply with fair housing law, so that people are not facing discrimination when they’re looking for housing. We are going through a racial equity audit organization this year, working with internal and external stakeholders so that all of the work that we do is rooted in equity. 

Email: [email protected]

Twitter: @avanidkalra

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