The numbers are stark.

Florida's growth-based economy has been wounded to the point of hemorrhaging; the state is fourth in the nation for active foreclosures. Some 35,264 homes — one of every 242 properties — are facing foreclosure, and the rate is increasing at a manic pace. The city of Orlando is 13th in the nation's top 100 metropolitan areas in foreclosures; 10,522 of its homes — or one in every 88 properties — are in crisis. All that flipping has flopped.

"What do you think we need to stop the bleeding?" asks Tracey Mertens, program director for the Housing Solutions Program of Apopka. "People need answers."

Mertens' Housing Solutions Program seeks to connect all facets of the real-estate industry into a one-stop resource that's designed to mitigate the mass confusion of the current housing market. She wants lawyers, real estate experts, credit counselors and home-associated businesses to work together. Her ultimate goal is to establish a pay-it-forward business model that aligns needs with resources in a manner that benefits everyone. Basically, it's a marketing game of referrals and associations aimed at a higher cause.

It is, in effect, targeting the other side of the housing conundrum: not the sad families in poverty leaving their dolls behind in puddles (although, this program being inclusive, they too are welcome), but rather the sad industry so maligned by questionable financing that it is closing in on itself.

Real estate agents and lenders have to eat, too, right? (Wait — weren't they the ones who got us into this mess?)

The nation's real estate woes have played out through the television media in increasingly hopeless tones: Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac collapsing, economic reverberations through the construction industry, home values plummeting amidst the growing blight of mosquitoes multiplying in abandoned swimming pools. There is, it would seem, nothing that can be done, save a still-uncertain financial triage from the hastily passed American Housing Rescue and Foreclosure Prevention Act of 2008, which President Bush recently signed.

"What we have right now is the industry is flat on its back," says Roland Acosta, a former SunTrust lawyer and 25-year industry veteran who was the keynote speaker at Housing Solutions' first public seminar, held Aug. 2 in Altamonte Springs. "We've got to do something different to give it life and to resurrect it. I think that this model is something that will work."

What this means is a complicated exercise in cross-pollination. Real estate agents are invited to list their properties on the project's website (, provided that they agree to the terms, which include suggesting "add-on amenities" like home security systems to properties they are selling. According to Mertens, security systems are important.

"How do we make sure that if someone buys their dream house, it gets properly renovated? Let's upgrade what we have," she says. "Let's give them the security factor as the neighborhood goes through its rejuvenation project. And there may be functional things — or fun things — that they want to add to the house that maybe they couldn't afford to themselves."

The program also features a credit counseling service, which Mertens assures is not like the ones to which people are accustomed. "Instead of thousands of dollars," she says of the service, "it's $150."

Acosta insists that the effort is also philanthropic. "It's altruistic. It's based upon the principles that givers gain; the more you give, the more you'll get back. … And yeah, we're in business for profit, but it's also to help the community. Everybody has got to pull together if we're going to come out of this."

That altruism stems from this otherwise capitalistic enterprise's association with a nonprofit called Earth Angels United, which aims to assist the downtrodden. Via this partnership, Mertens and her associates can boast that this program isn't just about fattening real estate agents' slightly slimmer wallets — it's about helping the little guy, too.

Mertens calls this nonprofit "solid" by IRS standards. But a look at its publicly available tax records from 2004 to 2006 shows very minimal activity: $1,576 in contribution in 2004, just $225 in 2006, and Mertens herself is a board member — all of which suggests that Housing Solutions' relationship with this nonprofit is little more than a public relations cover.

Stephanie Porta, head organizer for the Orlando Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, is not impressed. She suggests that ventures like the Housing Solutions Program are more interested in moving people out of their homes than helping people keep them. ACORN's been leading the charge on bad lenders — protesting at the offices of Florida lenders and building a "Subprime City" of boxes and tents at Florida's Capitol building in April — and is presently aiding those suffering foreclosure through its hotline. (If you're interested, that's 1-877-33-ACORN.)

"We do it for free," she says.

A July 19 Washington Post article warned of those offering "expert advice" on how to lose your home. The article recommended that where possible, people should work to have their loans modified, rather than enduring the credit blight and humility of a foreclosure or a short sell.

Loan modification has become the main focus of ACORN's deeds, although the unwillingness of many lenders to even return calls is a problem. That's why ACORN takes the drastic measures it does. "Sometimes it just takes shaming the guys," says Porta.

According to Acosta, the real estate industry veteran, the housing crisis paints a bigger picture than the fate of those existing at
its bottom.

"Well, let's face it," he says. "I think `we're` trying to save the economy of the country. Basically we've got to have the housing industry survive or we're going to go into a depression. It's got to come back. And it will come back."

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