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Housing advocates share tactics to fight foreclosure

Talia Whyte | 8/20/2008, 5:08 a.m.

On the eve of the 40th anniversary of the Fair Housing Act, the federal law that prohibits housing discrimination, local government officials and activists gathered last week for a forum designed to help endangered residents save their homes.

The rising tide of foreclosures has shaken the nation’s economy and left many homeowners nervous about their financial futures. Communities of color, frequently targeted by predatory lenders and victimized by discriminatory housing practices, have experienced a particularly strong backlash.

At the information session, held last Thursday at the Reggie Lewis Track and Athletic Center in Roxbury, Michael D. Mitchell of the National Community Reinvestment Coalition (NCRC) said that Boston is in a better position to deal the housing crisis due to its strong coalition of agencies and grassroots organizations working on behalf of the community, including the Boston regional office of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and the Boston Fair Housing Commission.

Stephen Freeman, a foreclosure prevention counselor for the Metropolitan Boston Housing Partnership, agreed that the office of Mayor Thomas M. Menino has made it a priority to help assess homeowners’ abilities to pay off loans.

“The city is tracking foreclosures and making sure those people [affected] are being taken care of,” Freeman said.

Nadine Co­­hen, senior staff attorney for Greater Boston Legal Services, said that while city residents do have the resources to protect themselves and their homes, Massachusetts remains ranked in the top 10 states with the highest rates of foreclosure. She said that people of color are being sought out by predatory lenders.

“Seventy-five percent of foreclosures are occurring in the four sections of Boston — Roxbury, Mattapan, Dorchester and Hyde Park — … with the largest populations of people of color,” she said. “In 2005, half of all loans to people of color in Boston were high-interest loans. Foreclosures have stripped equity and wealth in these communities.”

According to Cohen, predatory lenders generally target individuals who have a poor credit history, have a fixed income and are not aware of their legal rights.

To prevent falling prey to unsavory lenders, Cohen recommends that homeowners and prospective borrowers read all legal documents thoroughly before signing them. If homeowners have a problem understanding the language in the documents, they should request help from a trusted friend or family member. If they elect to hire a lawyer, homeowners should be careful, she said, as sometimes lawyers do not have the client’s best interest in mind.

“I would also be very careful about payments before your loan is looked at,” said Cohen. “You might be able to get modifications in your legal documents without paying anything.”

Shawna Nelms, associate director of the NCRC’s National Homeownership Sustainability Fund, said that those who plan to vote in the November elections should take the foreclosure crisis into consideration when casting their ballots.

“No matter who you vote for, make sure they address this problem,” she said.

For more information on unfair housing practices, contact the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination at 617-994-6000.