By Worcester District 4 City Councilor Barbara G. Haller
Hardly a day goes by without a media story on the foreclosure crisis and its trickle down and up effects. The crisis is real and growing and many analysts are saying that it will easily be two years, and perhaps several more, before our economy restabilizes.
There are many contributing factors – predatory lending, greed, denial, small margins for making ends meet, quickly escalating costs of living (property taxes, gasoline, heating fuel, insurance, health costs, and just about everything else we pay for). The other side of the coin is that there are some opportunities too as property values sink to more affordable prices – but buyer beware, as there are often liens, code violations, and financing traps associated with these properties.
Foreclosure brings much and lasting pain. Losing one’s home is extremely difficult. In addition to owneroccupied housing loss, investment foreclosure affects tenant housing in many serious ways including unanticipated eviction. Vacant buildings affect nearby housing values, insurance costs, and public safety. New development has slowed to a crawl, affecting jobs and disposable income which in turn affects retail viability. It is fair to say that each of us has been or soon will be touched by foreclosures.
Each aspect of foreclosure is worthy of reflection and public education. Our Federal and State governments are working to find ways to stem the tide. New mortgage restructuring vehicles and real-value counseling programs are being offered. Because the landscape is frequently changing, we are best served by staying informed.
Protecting our neighborhoods has long been a primary concern of the City Council and our City Administration. Several years ago the City announced its partnership with Worcester’s Office of the NeighborWorks® Homeownership Center, a national non-profit agency devoted to increasing and protecting home ownership. In 2007 City Manager Michael O’Brien announced the Property Review Team (PRT) and its role in more quickly identifying and responding to problem properties. The Council voted in new enforcement tools for bringing problem properties back into compliance with community standards. These actions provide an important baseline for the City’s ability to step up to the foreclosure crisis.
In May 2007, Worcester’s NeighborWorks® was designated as a foreclosure counseling center, part of the national 1-888-995-HOPE foreclosure hotline. In June 2007, the City Council gave approval for Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) funds to staff the hotline. More resources have been given to Worcester and NeighborWorks® for counseling and financial help by the Patrick-Murray Administration, MassHousing, Massachusetts Housing Partnership Find, and resources continue to be developed.
On January 29 this year, City Manager O’Brien released his in depth, months-in-the-making S.A.V.E. Our Neighborhoods initiative. This article summarizes this report as part of the public education effort to guide people in dealing with the foreclosure crisis.
S.A.V.E. (Stabilize, Assist, Value, Enforce) Our Neighborhoods
Foreclosure Education, Prevention, Management.
It is in our best interests to keep people in their housing wherever possible. There are important homeowner and tenant services available to help people avoid foreclosure related displacement. The City is adding housing receiverships to its toolbox which in partnership with Housing Court will in some cases allow for an independent firm to take over property management and keep tenants in their apartments.
We need to look ahead clearly at our personal housing situation – if you are concerned about making mortgage payments call the NeighborWorks® Homeownership Center directly at (508) 791-2170 (See the NeighborWorks® sidebar) or the national hotline at 1-888-995-HOPE. All information is confidential. Call sooner rather than later.
If you are concerned that your landlord is in financial trouble (poor maintenance is a good sign) call the City’s Property Review Team (PRT) at (508) 799-8485. Remember: the earlier we connect with services the more likely it is that services will help.
If your landlord has already been foreclosed on and the bank is pressuring you to move out, call Central Mass Housing Alliance at (508) 791-7265 and find out what options you have (See sidebar on Tenant rights).
If you are a part of an organization set up an informational meeting on foreclosure for your members. The City and NeighborWorks® are dedicated to present important information city-wide. Mayor Konstantina Lukes has committed her resources to help set up these meetings. Call her office at (508) 799-1153 and give the name of your group, approximate number of people, and some possible dates and times for a meeting. Likewise, I am pleased to assist in anyway – (508) 414-0266.
Re-organizing City Government.
City Manager O’Brien is reorganizing his team and creating a Department of Inspectional Services. The new Commissioner will chair the Property Review Team and the department will focus on maintaining public safety through inspection and oversight of our housing stock. The intention is move from largely reactive responses (complaint-driven) to largely proactive management.
This will be accomplished via the re-organization and coupled with improved technology. Field inspectors will have lap-top computers for realtime access to a central database for retrieving and entering data. The successful (508) 929-1300 Customer Service Request System for Department of Public Works & Parks (DPW&P) will be expanded to include all Housing Enforcement complaints. The rollout is in progress but not fully in place at this time – resources are being identified be accelerate the full implementation.
City Council support and approval will be an important aspect of the rollout. You can help by contacting the Mayor and Council offices and voicing your support for this needed retooling of city government to meet the challenges of both the baseline problem properties and the foreclosed properties, many of which are vacant.
Enhanced Enforcement & Monitoring of Problem Properties.
The City Manager’s Problem Properties Working Group is an internal, interdepartmental effort to lead the city to better identify potential problem properties. This group recommended the now-completed Property Analysis System which combines data from several databases and calculates a problem score for individual properties and selects threshold properties for further actions. This tool is being expanded to include more data points and reports and promises to increasingly be a critical element of neighborhood preservation efforts brought on by foreclosure and other property management deficiencies.
The Property Review Team continues to meet weekly to review a whole host of problem and potentiallyproblem properties – identified persistent problem properties, highscoring Property Analysis System properties, lodging houses, dormitories and fraternity/sorority houses, vacant buildings, Police Department action buildings, foreclosed properties, properties scheduled for mortgage rate resets, properties identified by the Registry of Deeds as subject to foreclosure. The PRT devises and implements strategies for action and then monitors results.
In addition, a current vacant property list will be shared with Housing inspectors, Fire Prevention, Nuisance inspectors, and our Community Impact Division police officers with the purpose of routine and careful inspections and reports of status changes for better management. Inspectors will also increase inspections of vulnerable streets and neighborhoods. Properties will be analyzed for possible Housing Court enforcements, receiverships, board-ups, or condemnation.
The Arson Hot-Line has been reactivated (508) 799-8651 as has a $5,000 reward program.
We surely can’t stop all the pain associated with foreclosures, but by assessing our situation (personally and as a neighborhood) and engaging available resources we can soften the blow.
Experience has shown that many people wait too long to act. The longer we wait the fewer options exist. We must take our heads out of the sand and encourage those we care about to do the same.
Personal inventory of concern: Figure out what your particular interest is: foreclosure prevention, retained tenancy, condominium impacts, duplex impacts, neighborhood property values, insurance costs, mortgage insurance kick-ins, unsecured vacant buildings (copper theft, gas hazards, fire hazards, burst water pipes, squatters, dumping, unshoveled sidewalks, …) – take a hard look at your situation, identify the treats to your quality of life and get to work.
Personal foreclosure: call 1-888- 995-HOPE.
Personal eviction: call (508) 791- 7265.
Retained tenancy, condo, duplex impacts: call Housing (508) 799- 1400.
Insurance issues: call NeighborWorks® (508) 791-2170.
Vacant buildings: Call Property Review Team (508) 799-8485.
Neighborhood concerns: Keep your eyes open and report any changes – vacancy, reoccupation, trash, poor maintenance, graffiti, rumors of foreclosure or auction. Call Property Review Team: (508) 799-8485.
Spread the word: talk with your family members, neighbors, colleagues, and social groups. Set up informational meetings with your neighborhood, business, ethnic, social, and religious groups. Call Mayor Lukes Office (508) 799-1153 or my office (508) 414- 0266. We will arrange for translation as needed.
Stay current: read articles, listen to radio reports, watch TV reports. New developments are still happening.
Be careful: unscrupulous lenders, credit repair agencies, and mortgage brokers are still out there looking for new victims. Know who you are working with – do the research before you commit. The City and its partner, NeighborWorks® Homeownership Center, can help you understand the risks and opportunities. Use them.
Time is of the essence. The foreclosure crisis is real and your involvement is vital to protect our city’s housing assets.