Fighting Foreclosure in Boston
Sam, Marielle and Avis knock on the door of the Thetford Avenue house they have identified as being at risk of foreclosure. A young African-American man answers. Sam, businesslike, introduces the team and tells the man that the home he is living in is going into foreclosure. Is he the owner? No, says the guy. He’s the tenant; the owner lives next door. Did the tenant know this home was about to be sold out from under the owner? No, the man replies. No one had mentioned anything to him.
Sam gives the man two bags of PNOL material and asks him to pass one along to the owner. As the students head back to the car, however, the owner materializes from what looks like a basement flat next door. They stop and talk with him, find out his story. He is a Boston cop, he says, and he bought the home from his parents in 1985, intending to rent it out for extra cash. As its value skyrocketed during the housing boom, he refinanced and then refinanced again, taking on one dubious adjustable-rate subprime loan after another. At its peak, the home was worth $560,000 and he owed $470,000 on it, with monthly payments of $2,800.
As it turned out, that was just the teaser rate. When the variable rate kicked in after three years, his mortgage payments jumped to $4,000. At the same time, the value of the property collapsed to about $280,000, making it impossible for him to refinance. Despite his policeman’s salary, he fell behind on payments; in January 2010 he stopped paying entirely, and the bank began foreclosure proceedings.
Similar stories can be heard all over town. “We discovered the average outstanding mortgage amount [in Boston’s hardest-hit neighborhoods] was $325,000,” explains BCC’s Elyse Cherry. “But if you applied any kind of underwriting criteria, the average mortgage they could support was somewhere in the region of $150,000.”
In the Housing Court, there’s 38-year-old Sophia Marks, a secretary who took out a fixed-rate mortgage for $326,000 in 2005 and then watched in horror as her home’s value dropped to $160,000 and her husband got laid off from his job with the city’s transit authority. Despite Sophia’s attempt to avoid foreclosure by wiring thousands of dollars to the company that held her mortgage, her home was eventually sold out from under her for $166,500. She and her husband remain in the home, periodically returning to the Housing Court in an effort to persuade the new owner to sell it to BCC so that BCC can sell it back to them.
Also in the Housing Court is 59-year-old Y. Heather Gordon, a onetime JPMorgan Chase bank employee who bought a fixer-upper in Jamaica Plain in 1992 and slowly turned it into a decent home for herself, her two grown sons (both of whom are now back at home after losing their jobs in the recent downturn) and, on weekends, her three young grandchildren. After she went on disability in 2002, she embarked on a series of refinancing ventures, borrowing against the seemingly endless increase in her home’s value to cover her daily expenses. By 2005 she owed $287,000 on a home she had bought for only $65,000, and her interest rate was 13 percent and rising. The last time she refinanced, she says, the company—a fly-by-night Internet operation that closed down immediately after securing her signature on a new loan agreement and selling the product to another lender—told her the monthly payment would be $2,000; instead it was $3,800. Within five months, she was facing foreclosure and the threat that her possessions would be thrown onto the street. She stayed in her home, taking what legal advice she could garner from Harvard Law students. Like Marks, she hopes the bank that owns her home will agree to sell it to BCC so that she can buy it back at a more reasonable price.
Despite the best efforts of Grossman’s team, not all foreclosure victims win their courtroom battles. Increasingly, that’s when on-the-ground activists step in to stop people from getting kicked to the curb.
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Four days after Sam, Marielle and Avis knocked on his door, the foreclosed homeowner from Thetford Avenue walks in late to a weekly antiforeclosure meeting organized by City Life/Vida Urbana, a community organizing group in Jamaica Plain. By the time he arrives on the second floor of the old brick Haffenreffer brewery, about 100 people are present. Some of them are community organizers; others are Harvard Law School students who had been driven to the event by Grossman. Most of them are foreclosure victims: disproportionately poor, overwhelmingly African-American. People like Osazee Egharevba, who lost his job in 2008, spent a year trying fruitlessly to secure a loan modification from his bank and went into foreclosure in September 2009—by which time his home, not long earlier worth $512,000, was valued at a mere $210,000. Over the first several months of 2010, the lawyers and law students from the Harvard Legal Aid Bureau negotiated a sale with Egharevba’s bank. In late April, he was able to buy back his home from BCC for $225,000. Thankful for his second chance, he now turns up at City Life every week and often helps canvass at-risk neighborhoods.
Off to the side of the rows of fold-up metal chairs stands a big bookshelf, on top of which are two stage props: a huge sword and an equally imposing shield on which, in lieu of a coat of arms, is the simple outline of a house and the words No One Leaves. The props represent City Life’s “sword and shield” strategy, the sword being direct action (vigils, sit-ins, protests against banks seeking to evict people, blockades against sheriffs trying to remove residents and their possessions from a house slated for auction) and the shield being the detailed legal expertise provided by the Harvard Law students. Around the offices are an array of bumper stickers with slogans like Tenants Vote: Boston Tenant Coalition and Trabajos con Justicia/Jobs With Justice. There are Malcolm X quotes and a diamond-shaped orange banner adorned with the words Enough Is Enough! ¡Basta Ya!
“When we took up the foreclosure battle, we found a way to approach it from an organizing way rather than a casework way,” says 62-year-old Steve Meacham, a longtime community organizer who has worked for City Life for the past eleven years. “Casework is important but individualized. An organizing approach says we do it in a more collective way, that challenges the problem, doesn’t just stick the finger in the dike.”
A skinny guy with an intense, steely gray-eyed stare, Meacham seems like an organizer who takes his campaigns very seriously. Under his and others’ tutelage, many City Life members have learned not just to formally protest foreclosures but to take action against banks attempting to evict residents who have fallen on hard times. Since 2007 City Life has arranged more than twenty blockades to prevent evictions from going ahead, most of which have been successful. The group has also effectively pushed BCC to become more involved in buying back distressed homes.
When the discussion section of the weekly meeting ends, the organizers lead a shout-out. “What do we do when the banks attack?” they ask their audience. “Stand up, fight back!” 100 people roar. “What do we do when the banks attack?” The audience members rise up out of their seats, fists clenched and pointing skyward. Grossman and his students stand too. “Stand up, fight back!”