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Volunteers offer hope, help amid foreclosures

Sandra Larson
Sandra Larson is a Boston-based freelance journalist covering urban/social issues and policy. VIEW BIO
Volunteers offer hope, help amid foreclosures
Volunteer Dorrett Martin checks a map before heading to the next address on a list of foreclosure petitions and scheduled auctions. (Photo: Sandra Larson)

Author: Sandra LarsonVolunteer Dorrett Martin checks a map before heading to the next address on a list of foreclosure petitions and scheduled auctions.

Dorrett Martin, a volunteer with the Jamaica Plain housing advocacy group City Life/Vida Urbana, navigated her car along the short curvy streets near Mattapan Square.

Martin knows well this area and many of its residents, having lived on Blue Hill Avenue in Mattapan for the last 25 years. But last Saturday her task was visiting strangers. Riding shotgun with Martin was fellow volunteer Sandra Douglas. Her job was to check the list of addresses of foreclosed properties on her map before they stepped out. Martin rang the doorbell after stopping in front of a small single-family house with light-blue siding.

“We’re here from City Life,” she began. “We are trying to help people whose homes may be in foreclosure.”

The slender, 40-ish woman who answered the door didn’t need to hear more. “Come in,” owner Sophia Mitte said immediately, with a mixture of relief and pain. “I’m going through massive financial troubles.”

Every weekend over the past year, volunteer canvassers from City Life and a network of area law schools and colleges called No One Leaves have fanned out into foreclosure-ridden neighborhoods in Boston. They knock on 40 or 50 doors each week to inform tenants and owners in foreclosed buildings that help is available from advocacy and legal aid organizations.

Foreclosures in Boston topped 1,200 last year and 584 have occurred in the first eight months of this year, according to figures from the Warren Group, which tracks real estate data. In addition, 1,646 foreclosure petitions — the first step in the process — were filed in the first eight months of this year, signaling the trouble is not ending.

The hardest-hit neighborhoods have been Dorchester, Roxbury, East Boston, Mattapan and Hyde Park. Though it contains only one sixth of the city’s population, Dorchester accounted for roughly half of all Boston foreclosures in each of the past three years.

City Life volunteers are particularly empathetic messengers, many having experienced the pain of foreclosure themselves. Dorrett Martin was laid off from her job “ages ago,” and the multi-family home that she purchased in 1984 — and where she reared her four children — was foreclosed on last spring, she said. Sandra Douglas is her tenant — she moved into one of the units 20 years ago. The two have become close friends over the years, and their teen daughters are friends, too.

They are still living in the house, but eviction looms.

“I didn’t know if I had any rights at all,” said Martin, “but I wanted to help Sandy.”

Tenants who know their rights can often gain time before having to move, and some have won financial compensation, especially if an absent landlord allowed the unit to fall into disrepair. In this case, with City Life’s help, these two women are exploring the possibility that tenant Douglas, who works as a nursing assistant in a senior home, might be able to buy Martin’s house from the bank at its current value — far lower than the inflated-market value it may have commanded in the past few years.

This is a key goal of City Life, said Steve Meacham, the nonprofit organization’s Tenant Organizing Coordinator. They believe it is sometimes better to go through foreclosure and try to buy the house back at its real value than to work out a loan modification that doesn’t reduce the principal owed. The “real” value, for most foreclosed houses today, is much lower than the amount owed before foreclosure.

Meacham believes this is a moral issue and a practical one. In an interview for a May 2009 segment of the PBS television show Bill Moyers Journal, he put it this way: “If Deutsche Bank forecloses on Joe Schmoe, the best they can do is sell that property at real value. So if Joe Schmoe can afford the property at real value, why not sell it back to him?”

He admits his organization is in a minority in what they advocate in foreclosure cases.

“Our message is counterintuitive,” he says. “We are saying foreclosure is not the end of the world. It’s not the final step.”

Inside the light-blue house, owner Sophia Mitte explained to the volunteers that after her husband was laid off from his job as a driver with a transportation company, the bank agreed to modify their loan, reducing payments by $600 a month. That was sustainable until she discovered hidden mold behind the kitchen cabinets that was causing severe asthma flare-ups for two of her three sons, even leading to hospitalization for one. She had the cabinetry torn out and disinfected, but their insurance didn’t cover the work, she said, and the unexpected expense has caused her to fall behind again.

Canvassers leave a flyer at each house urging both tenants and owners to go to City Life’s Tuesday night meetings, where they’ll meet others in similar straits and have a chance to talk with a volunteer lawyer.

Meacham said 60 to 80 people attend the weekly meetings, now, up from around 20 in early 2008. They are now monitoring about 500 “open cases,” he said — people who have come to meetings at some point and are in the midst of the long sequence of court hearings and negotiations with banks — and seeing 25 to 35 new households each month.

By the time Sophia Mitte was hugging Martin and Douglas goodbye, she was planning to come to the next City Life meeting. She sounded determined and hopes to get an extension from the bank to start the loan modification again.

 “I just need breathing space,” she said. “As long as I’m alive, I’ll pay. I just want to keep my house.”

Back in the car, Martin and Douglas continued down their list. At one house, the owner said he didn’t need any help. They left information with him anyway. At another, no one was home. A house on River Street was clearly abandoned, surrounded by a thick overgrowth of weeds and a chain link fence that blocked access to the door.

One of their assigned addresses was a tidy home with potted flowers on the porch and a lawn of thriving grass and flowers. The owner happened to be a woman Martin knows from her church. When she understood their reason for their visit, the woman’s face became still and her voice dropped to little more than a whisper.

“You can tell me where to get help,” she said, “but it’s gone through the gates already.”

She remained stoic for a few minutes as Martin attempted to engage her in conversation, but then ducked into the kitchen for a tissue to dab her eyes.

The house is in short sale, she said miserably. She did not elaborate, but short sale normally means the sale of a house for less than what the owner still owes on the mortgage. The lender typically forgives the rest of the homeowner’s debt.

It’s not clear what sort of help this woman might obtain at City Life in her situation — maybe it is too late — but Martin was emphatic about trying.

“You have ways, you’re not alone,” Martin told her, “It’s not the end of the world.”

Standing with the City Life flyer tucked under a rigid arm, the woman finally mustered a smile. “Thank you,” she said.

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