Twenty-four-year-old Harvard Law School student Sam Levine parks the silver Nissan hybrid he has driven into Boston’s working-class Mattapan neighborhood. The wind hits him in the face as he steps onto Thetford Avenue. He is wearing black jeans, his dark hair slightly mussed and gelled into place. With him are two fellow students, third-year Marielle Macher and second-year Avis Bohlen. Marielle is wearing a coat under which is a red T-shirt with the words Project No One Leaves written on the front. Avis is power-dressed in a skirt and svelte sweater. The trio could pass for actors in a Gap ad.
It had taken about an hour to reach Mattapan from the Harvard Legal Aid Bureau, with Sam navigating Boston’s notorious traffic. During the ride, the group passed the time talking about jobs they were lining up for the summer and musing on the female voice commands of Marielle’s GPS gadget. The students believe “she” is moody today.
As the lawyers-in-training approached their target neighborhood—cruising the back streets past Harambee Park, where a gaggle of long-necked geese spotted the grass, into a landscape of ramshackle, untended homes—they read off a list of twenty-four recently foreclosed properties published in a local realty journal. They are stopping at each house on the list, scouting to see if the property seems abandoned (broken or boarded-up windows, weeks of uncollected mail, trash strewn in the yard and so on). If it does, they move on. But if there is even a glimmer of a chance that the house is still inhabited, they park and approach the front door. When a resident answers, they quickly go into their patter about foreclosure rights and the danger of scam artists—who may be (or may already have been) in contact, promising the moon in exchange for a few thousand dollars—and they explain that Harvard’s law students are willing to work gratis on the case.
When no one’s home, they hang a red plastic bag on the door knob or slip it through the mail slot. Inside is literature about the foreclosure process; the Legal Aid Bureau, which has been working with several other regional law schools to offer legal services to owners and tenants facing foreclosure; and Project No One Leaves (PNOL), a consortium made up of lawyers, activists and a community development financial institution that is pursuing an innovative strategy to keep local residents in their homes.
Since the housing market collapsed, more than 3,500 homes in Boston have gone into foreclosure; some weeks, more than 100 properties are repossessed. In this city, as elsewhere in the country, a disproportionate number of shoddy subprime loans were issued to African-Americans—their terms deliberately obfuscated, their punitive provisions setting up borrowers to fail. As a result, from 2006 onward a huge number of the foreclosures in Boston have claimed properties owned by African-Americans. The scale of the dispossession is threatening to wreck not just individual aspirations but entire neighborhoods.
Boston Community Capital (BCC), the literature explains, has been buying distressed properties from banks and then selling them back to the original owners at just above the current market value, thus allowing the owners to stay in their homes with a more affordable monthly payment on a new, fixed-rate mortgage. It’s a good deal for everyone involved: the banks sell the foreclosed properties for more than they would typically expect, the owners get to keep their homes, neighborhoods that would otherwise end up increasingly abandoned and dilapidated get a shot at staying afloat, and BCC captures funds by selling the property at 25 percent more than what it paid. BCC also locks in a chance at bringing in more money by having each owner sign an agreement stipulating that BCC will receive a share of the profit if the owner flips the home, a move that encourages residents to stay put.