Keeping House: Local Organizations Collaborate to Help Boston Residents Stay in Their Home Post-Foreclosure

Noelle Swan
Spare Change News

When Jeril Richardson checked out of the hospital after he was hit by a car in 2009, he returned home to find that his landlord had not been keeping up with mortgage payments and the bank was foreclosing on his Hyde Park home.

Canvassers knocking on his door told him about City Life Vida Urbana, a community organization that would help him to fight to stay in his home. Nearly three years later, Richardson still lives in the house, pays rent to the bank, and is saving to purchase the property.

Every weekend, students and community volunteers from Project No One Leaves hit the streets in an effort to reach tenants and homeowners facing foreclosure to inform them of their rights during and after the foreclosure.

“We try to get there before eviction agents come knocking and telling them to leave immediately,” said Chris Larson, senior at Tufts University who helped to coordinate a chapter of No One Leaves at Tufts.

In recent years, keeping up with new foreclosures has become a daunting task, said Chas Hamilton, a third-year law student and current president of the board for Project No One Leaves at Harvard Law School. “In a given week, there might be 30 new foreclosures listed in Boston proper.”

Then there are properties that they did not get to in weeks past because canvassers ran out of time, people weren’t home, or their just weren’t enough cars to get to all of the neighborhoods.

Volunteers for No One Leaves chart foreclosure postings listed in local newspapers and real estate publications. Listings are grouped into geographic zones of the city and mapped out. Each week, a dozen or so volunteers gather at the Harvard Legal Aid Bureau in Cambridge, split up into groups of two to five depending on the number of cars available, and try to get out to as many properties as they can in three hours.

“The real message that we try to deliver is that foreclosure is not the end. It’s the beginning of this very long battle,” Larson said.

The Harvard Legal Aid Bureau and Greater Boston Legal Services have been helping homeowners and tenants fight that battle since the beginning of the foreclosure crisis in 2007. The two groups had a long-standing past providing free legal support around housing and tenants’ rights issues.

When the foreclosure crisis hit, the lawyers were poised to help, but people were leaving their homes without ever knowing they had any rights or means to fight for them, said David Grossman, Harvard Law School professor and director of the Harvard Legal Aid Bureau. “We couldn’t just wait for people to come into our office. We needed to do significant outreach.”

Project No One Leaves became the vehicle for that outreach. Started by two Harvard students, several chapters have intermittently popped up at Boston University, Suffolk Law School, Tufts University, Boston College, New England Law School, and Harvard College. Grossman said that other religious and community organizations have also established canvassing trips that build on that outreach.

In addition to empowering individuals to fight their own battles, Project No One Leaves invites residents affected by foreclosure, to attend meetings at City Life, a grassroots tenants’ rights organization headquartered in Jamaica Plain, that aims to turn private foreclosure battles into a public movement.

“If we can just get them here,” said long-time City Life organizer Jim Brooks, “then they realize they’re not alone.”

Indeed, it is impossible not become swept up and enveloped by the sense of community at a City Life meeting.

Over a hundred people gather every Tuesday evening, filling the seats and sometimes the aisles. Frequent attendees and newcomers alike greet each other like old friends, with double-fisted handshakes, hugs, and pats on the back.

At a recent meeting, a woman from Randolph arrived late. Lead organizer Melonie Griffiths spotted her and interrupted the meeting to induct her into the community.

As the woman finished explaining that the bank would be putting her home up for auction the following Tuesday, her face melted under silent tears.

Griffiths took the distraught woman’s hand and said, “When you cry we cry. But if you’re going to fight, we’re going to fight with you.”

These meetings are not just a place to cry out together in sorrow and anger— even though there is plenty of that. This community has teeth.

Griffiths handed the woman a replica sword, instructed her to hold it high above her head, and asked, “Will you fight to stay in your home?”

The woman nodded, and Griffiths continued, “I fought to stay in my home, many others here fought to stay in their homes.”

The crowd answered as one, “We’ll fight with you!”

Within 15 minutes, the community did what it does best; it organized.

One by one, voices from the audience volunteered to head out to Randolph to protest the auction.

These auction protests are something of a trademark for City Life. Propped up on top of bookshelves and file cabinets all around the large community room are colorful wooden signs declaring, “We Shall Not Be Moved!” and “This is City Life territory.”

Near the door, a handwritten poster details the two-fold purpose of the protests; first to deter investors that plan to evict the current residents, and second to support the sale to someone who will negotiate a resale of the property to the resident.

“We want the bank to buy the property back because we have more leverage with the banks,” Brooks explained to the meeting attendees.

Grossman estimates that in 90 percent of the cases, the bank does end up the owner of the title after the auction. He said that he tries to reassure people that come to him for legal advice through City Life that even though the bank holds the title, it cannot evict the current resident without a court order.

He believes that communicating this right is the key to empowering individuals to avoid being taken advantage of. He said that local real estate brokers hired by out of state lenders may offer residents a bit of money to leave the property.

“There’s nothing legally wrong about that offer, but when it’s accompanied by misrepresentation of the law then there is something illegal about it.” He adds that he has heard stories of brokers ringing doorbells and telling tenants that they have to leave or that they have no grounds to fight in court. “That’s usually just not true.”

Rental tenants especially have more rights than they may be aware of.

In 2009, Congress passed a federal law requiring lenders to give tenants living in foreclosed properties 90 days before they can be evicted. The following year, Massachusetts passed a state law granting tenants a continuation of their lease for the entire time the lender owns the property.

For owners, the processes can be more complicated. Currently, there is no comparable law protecting owners post-foreclosure, though City Life has been lobbying for a similar bill.

Still, strict procedures do exist that banks are required to follow before foreclosure takes place, involving a series of notifications and a five-month period to try to catch up on or modify the loan.

According to Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley, banks have not been following these procedures and have been illegally foreclosing on homes. She has filed suit against five major lenders on behalf of the residents of Massachusetts for violating these procedures, negligently issuing mortgages to families that could not afford payments, and even foreclosing on properties for which they never held the title.

While Coakley’s larger battle wages on at the state level, the lawyers at City Life work with individuals that are at risk of going from homeowner to homeless virtually overnight.

Many homeowners bought their homes at the height of the real estate boom. Today, those homes are worth just a fraction of the balance of the mortgage.

Others signed so-called “balloon loans,” with low initial mortgage payments that increased dramatically over time. In many cases, those increases went into effect at the same time that the market plummeted, simultaneously taking down property values, jobs, and livelihoods.

Stephen Fiocca started falling behind on his mortgage payments for his Dorchester condo when he was laid off from his job of 15 years rehabilitating apartment buildings. At 63, he said that it has been difficult to find another job.

“How are you going to help me?” he asked three canvassers from Project No One Leaves that came knocking on his door one Saturday morning. “Nobody else will.”

When the bank notified Fiocca that his condo could go into foreclosure, he got on the phone, called everyone he could think of looking for help, and said he came up empty-handed.

“City Hall told me to start looking into homeless shelters,” he said.

He remains skeptical of how much City Life will be able to help him. When told that the free legal counsel can sometimes help homeowners negotiate a principle reduction and lower their mortgage payments, he shrugs. “I’m won’t be able to pay that either if I can’t find a job.”

NOELLE SWAN is a freelance writer.

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