Foreclosures in San Diego and what libraries are all about

San Diego County LibraryLed by the San Diego County Library (SDCL), a few libraries in Southern California and Nevada are helping homeowners threatened by foreclosure. At least, my source for this post does not indicate that the effort is any more widespread than that. But it beautifully illustrates how libraries struggle to meet the needs of their community.

At first glance, libraries don’t seem to have much to do with the housing crisis. At second glance, people who see their homes slipping away have no idea where to turn for information. Providing information is a core library function. Building community is another.

The problem

The housing crisis that got started in 2006 affected housing prices all over the country, but not equally. After having fewer than 6,000 annual defaults on mortgages for years, San Diego County saw more than 10,000 in 2006. The number grew to 38,000 by 2009. It was one of the hardest hit areas in the country.

The Housing Opportunities Collaborative (HOC), a non-profit organization with branches in five Southern California counties, began to offer free workshops that brought together credit counselors, housing counselors, realtors, and a variety of attorneys who specialized in bankruptcy, real estate, and tax law.

The suddenness and size of the crisis presented numerous problems for HOC. One of them concerned where to hold meetings. They needed a venue that the public would trust. After all, lots of hucksters hold seminars in a crisis, pitching products and services that might not be necessary or even be nothing more than a scam.

How the library helps

Susan Moore, who had just started a new job at the SDCL, saw the need and had no clear idea what she or the library could do about it. The library’s director encouraged her to look for a solution, even though it seemed not to be a typical library responsibility and even though the library faced steep budget cuts of its own.

Soon enough, Moore and the HOC found each other. Libraries have meeting rooms with the infrastructure necessary for both seminar sessions and private consultations. Libraries enjoy great credibility in the communities they serve. HOC for its part made sure that its volunteer professionals did not solicit business or even hand out cards.

Churches and other community groups would have also been comfortably neutral places for meetings, but SDCL has 33 branches. Besides fully equipped meeting rooms, it offered HOC the opportunity to deal with one contact at the library as opposed to lots of individuals in charge of lots of different organizations.

Another advantage of using the library soon became apparent. Many people facing foreclosure did not want their neighbors to suspect they had a problem. Meetings intended to serve a specific community turned out to be poorly attended.

In terms of area, San Diego County is one of the largest in the country. It stretches from the Mexican border north to the Fallbrook Branch, a driving distance of more than three hours.

I used to live there, and it’s an area where drivers don’t care much about long distances. It’s fairly easy to find addresses in unfamiliar neighborhoods, ideal for people who want to attend a meeting and not run into people they know.

Why should people in other parts of the country care about the partnership between SDCL and HOC? It shows a lot about how libraries operate and how librarians think:

  • Librarians want to provide accurate, useful information—even if it can’t be found in traditional library information sources.
  • Libraries frequently enter into partnerships with other local agencies, if only to provide meeting space.
  • Libraries seek to offer special help to populations with special needs—in this case, people facing foreclosure, but also entrepreneurs, the unemployed, handicapped, immigrants, minority groups, the technically challenged, and much more.
  • Libraries are not so much collections of information or entertainment as they are collections of services for their constituencies.

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Source: Libraries Help Homeowners Fight Foreclosure (link no longer work as of Feb 2016) / Deniz Koray in American Libraries
Photo credit: Some rights reserved by Allan Ferguson.

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