First Bank Led the Way for Homeowner Assistance

First Bank Financial Center

Ketchikan, Alaska, might be a famous stop within the Inside Passage and dubbed the Salmon Capital of the World, but to locals who call this picturesque and vibrant community home this small city truly embodies Alaska's welcoming, engaged, and can-do spirit

That approach to getting things done led First Bank to be the first financial institution in the state to distribute Alaska Housing Homeowner Assistance funds in conjunction with Alaska Housing Finance Corporation. Homeowner Assistance funds are being distributed to qualified Alaska homeowners who were financially affected by the COVID-19 pandemic.

A Pulse on the Community

It might surprise some that a modest-sized, southeast Alaska bank would claim this accolade. But not Heather Borch, First Bank’s Assistant Vice President, Mortgage Servicing.

Borch, who has been with First Bank for 24 years, has a comprehensive pulse on Southeast Alaska communities. Her daily work allows her to understand the pain points of the bank's customers.

“The pandemic has had a significant ripple effect on our community, which relies heavily on the tourism and fishing industries.”

– Heather Borch, First Bank’s Assistant Vice President, Mortgage Servicing

Commitment to the Community

Early in the process, the executive suite at First Bank had intense discussions about the bank's ability to provide the extended level of service that would be needed. Their strong community commitment reinforced the decisions made to not only move the Homeowner Assistance program forward but be a key player in its success.

"Customers, friends and co-workers were struggling. Many businesses had layoffs or reduced employee hours, and some shortened their hours of operations,” Borch says. “I knew that as a financial pillar in the community, it would be imperative to be ready to provide assistance to our customers when the government funding became available."

Alaskans Step Up

With a strong rapport and open communication channels already established with Alaska Housing's mortgage department, Borch and her team prepared for the Alaska Housing Homeowner Assistance launch.  They developed marketing materials to inform area residents about the program,  including mailers sent to more than 3,000 customers, email campaigns, and brochures. 

They also partnered with the local library to open at special times for in-person presentations that walked people through the process, especially borrowers in forbearance, and provided internet access to customers without digital service. Integrated social media outreach leveraged relationships with local businesses to post and share information.

At the same time, they took a deep dive as testers into the streamlined and secure data system that Alaska Housing created specifically for Alaska Mortgage Servicers. The “short” Customer Data File was unique to Alaska, eliminating unnecessary functions and focusing on critical information specifically pertinent to Alaska Mortgage Servicers. 

“First Bank had employees applying for homeowner assistance, which gave us the opportunity for a first-hand view as testers and early adopters to gauge user ease screen-by-screen.”

– Heather Borch

When First Bank stepped in, the short CDF system was still fluid. With input from First Bank, Alaska Housing implemented adjustments that created a more user-friendly environment, and significantly reduced the time that eligible applicant information was reviewed and ultimately paid. The effective changes helped to cut processing time by more than half compared to the national average. 

Mutually Beneficial Partnerships

“The long-standing relationship and open, two-way communication between Alaska Housing and First Bank was really the foundation that made this particular aspect of the partnership effective – especially important when it comes to discussions related to borrowers,” says Jan Miyagishima, Alaska Housing’s Director, Mortgage Operations.  

While the $50 million in government funding would be a welcome relief to many Alaska homeowners, there were very few guidelines for administration or distribution. States were expected to devise their own plans for process review, accountability, and distribution. Thus, input from Alaska Mortgage Servicers early in adaptation was critical.

“The established trust set the stage for our team to evaluate their input quickly and make modifications that really improved the product.” 

– Jan Miyagishima, Alaska Housing's Director, Mortgage Operations

A Personal Touch

Developing the short CDF was a team effort and representative of Alaska's unique business environment – neighbors help neighbors, and businesses connect resources. The strong relationship with Alaska Housing allowed First Bank to ask questions, adjust outreach when needed, and ultimately achieve their goals to provide financial assistance to customers and help the most delinquent borrowers get back on track. First Bank continues to be diligent with communications and work with customers within the program to keep them current on their mortgages and able to pay going forward. 

“There is a personal touch that is part of Alaska’s core,” says Borch. “I always know that Alaska Housing is just a phone call away if something needs to be resolved or if an issue arises that needs attention. The mutual trust and respect works both ways. Our ability to truly help our customers through this program is exciting for First Bank, but more importantly, we can see the positive impact in our community and that really matters."