By Elizabeth Zach, RCAC staff writer
In January, D. Nathan Cieszynski was teaching a course that he knew well and had offered so many times that there should have been few surprises.
As a housing and financial counselor with the Inland Fair Housing and Mediation Board (IFHMB), Cieszynski spent years working in the mortgage industry before he decided that his experience could help troubled homeowners. A decade later, he regularly conducts workshops on sustainable home ownership, and toward that end, how prospective homeowners can best pay off their student debt.
“Part of the workshop covers budgeting and money management practices, as we have found this is the very first issue that needs to be addressed before trying to lower the student loan payment,” Cieszynski explains. “We focus on tracking all monies spent, not just the large sums, and on making small adjustments rather than radical changes which may not be sustainable. We establish personal and financial goals, and we create a ‘road map’ to achieve both.”
During his January workshop, however, a young man in the course gave him pause.
“He had been on disability for 10 years,” Cieszynski recalls. “His disabilities were both physical as well as mental. Combined household income was less than $1,000 a month, and he had student loans totaling over $46,000.”
Martin Lee’s* dire financial situation would be enough to discourage anyone.
Together they tackle the challenges
Following the January workshop, he made an appointment with Cieszynski, “because I was in desperate need of assistance in having my student loans discharged due to total and permanent disability, or TPD,” he said.
Lee grew up in a single-parent home and his mother barely earned enough to make ends meet. It was impossible, he said, for him to afford college. A high school counselor helped him find grants and scholarships – he completed an advanced program in high school and graduated in the top 1 percent of his senior class, with honors – but these would only cover a semester or two.
“He advised me to apply for student loans, and – wrongly – assured me not to worry, that I would have guaranteed ‘free’ money from the government to help pay for my education, and that I would most certainly qualify for these loans since my family was low-income.”
He and Cieszysnki eventually found out that Social Security had scheduled Lee’s disability recertification in a way that presented exceptionally difficult challenges to request that his debt be forgiven.
“We submitted and applied no less than four times, always providing what was being asked for, and each time were told it was not enough or not acceptable,” Cieszynski said.
Frustration followed, which would stress anyone, but for Lee, it was especially hard.
“The process of discharging student loans based on TPD is not an easy one,” he explained. “For me, it was exceptionally stressful and the entire time my panic and anxiety levels were set to maximum. They kept claiming that they did not receive documentation that both I and Mr. Cieszynski had submitted to them electronically repeatedly, through their own online system. We kept having to resubmit paperwork that they already had, which made this process strenuous.”
He emphasizes that in Cieszynski, he knew he’d found an ally.
“I was in great need of someone that was knowledgeable, understanding and patient enough to assist me with my student loan TPD discharge,” Lee said. “After attending Mr. Cieszynski’s workshop, I knew that I had found the right person to help me. If he did not know the answer to a question I would ask, he would take the time to find me an answer from a knowledgeable and dependable source.”
Student loan debt affects many
In 2016, RCAC received funding from Bank of America to launch a pilot program aimed at educating students about taking on debt to pay for college. According to Judy Hunter, RCAC’s housing counseling manager who oversees the program, RCAC contracted with two housing counseling agencies to deliver counseling services to students before they borrow. One of those agencies is the Santa Fe Community Housing Trust and the other is IFHMB, where Cieszynski works.
Student debt is a problem for many young Americans. The debt weighs them down for years after they graduate and often impacts their ability to buy homes. Since the 2007 financial crisis began, analysts have observed how millions of Americans lost their household savings and home equity, which they may have been saving to pay for college.
When someone falls behind on their student loan debt payments, Cieszynski said, it can often be impossible for them to recover, which later is an obstacle to obtaining credit. Poor credit can also limit the available sources of down payment assistance.
“The average deductions from someone’s paycheck (when they’re trying to reduce their student loan debt) seems to range between 26 and 36 percent,” Cieszynski said. “One need only do the math to realize that going up to 50 percent or more of this person’s gross income for qualifications is setting the consumer up for failure. And this is done often with the assurance that their income will increase and they’ll eventually be able to afford it later on down the road as long as they are willing to sacrifice today.”
Student loan debt, he added, “is more an issue with sustaining home ownership rather than the ability to acquire the home. In my first-time-homebuyer course, I stress that buying and financing a home are the easy parts – sustaining it is much more difficult. In many cases, the return on investment from the student loans is inadequate and the burden to home ownership is high.”
As a counselor, he sees clients who are so overwhelmed with debt that they simply give up, “because they feel they will never be able to manage and maintain, let alone get out of, debt. This leads to higher debt, lower credit scores and higher cost of credit.”
This in turn affects the national economy, according to a Consumer Financial Protection Bureau official who told a Senate panel in June 2014 that student debt is having a kind of “domino effect” on other areas of the country’s financial stability. And in a 2012 Center for American Progress report, “The Student Debt Crisis,” researchers write that “the impact (of student debt) often extends beyond the students, burdening their families for decades. This threatens current and future generations’ ability to build successful careers and contribute to the economy, and it affects previous generations’ ability to save for their own future.”
Securing affordable housing for rural residents is part of RCAC’s mission and, as such, it became a national U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD)-approved housing counseling intermediary in 2005. Its training team—which includes Hunter, Teresa Bardwell and Donna Lea Brooks—has trained thousands of housing counselors and program managers. In 2016, RCAC became a HUD training partner and this year, it expanded its training schedule, and offers classes in Arizona, California, Colorado, Florida, Illinois, Nevada, New York and Texas, as well as multiple webinars to train counselors like Cieszynski.
Perseverance pays off
Cieszynski said he felt well-trained to help Lee as he dealt with his student loan debt, but was surprised at how challenging it was for his disabled client.
“The entire process was difficult,” Cieszynski said, “but neither my client nor I waivered in our determination to resolve this. The constant stress and back and forth created many emotional moments, adding undo additional stress on him.”
Lee said that looking back, he is surprised at how easy it was to take out a student loan, but then how very trying it was to pay it back.
“When I arrived on campus to complete my enrollment during my freshman year, I saw a row of tables with signs promising ‘free money for school’,” he recalled. “The advisor told me that the process was super-easy, since I was low-income. She made no mention of compounded interest at ridiculously inflated rates. For years after that, I was making interest-only payments. I had no hope of ever touching the balance.”
He spent years trying to figure out how to rectify his financial situation.
“The process of student debt discharge is an exceptionally stressful one, especially when you are disabled,” he said. “For almost a decade, I tried to find someone to assist me, but no one had the answers. There were absolutely no resources to help guide me, and the only thing that the student loan servicing company I was paying could do was reduce my monthly payments. It felt like an endless nightmare.”
“I would absolutely recommend this program to anyone that is seeking experienced, professional and compassionate assistance for student loan discharges,” Lee said.
But finally, in early November, Cieszynski and Lee received a letter stating that Lee’s discharge had finally been approved.
“I count this as one of my greatest successes, yet it was not accomplished alone,” Cieszynski said. “Many times my client was ready to give up, feeling that yet again our government had failed him, that the current political structure on both sides cared less about people and more about profits. What should have been a simple process, and one that would have been easy to accept when we received the initial decline, illustrated the need for advocates and counselors.
“I had to remain positive and encouraging,” he continued, “which helped my client to stay the course. I believed in his case—I knew he qualified—and it simply required tenacity and a willingness to not accept no as an answer.”
Lee, moreover, would like to spread the word.
“I would absolutely recommend this program to anyone that is seeking experienced, professional and compassionate assistance for student loan discharges,” he said.
To contact an RCAC housing counseling staff member send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org or call Teresa Bardwell at (303) 471-0310.
*For the sake of privacy, we have withheld the subject’s real name.