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City Life helps local families save foreclosed homes

Yawu Miller | 12/20/2011, 4:05 p.m.
Activists with City Life Vida Urbana confront a paper mache representation of a banker during a protest Saturday in front of a foreclosed Dorchester triple decker the Jamaica Plain-based housing group has taken over. Yawu Miller

A week after Mayor Thomas M. Menino shut down the Occupy Wallstreet camp in Dewy Square, a group of economic justice activists ratcheted up their occupation of a foreclosed Dorchester triple decker, moving a family into the building.

Herbert St. Simon, who lost his Hyde Park home to a foreclosure earlier this year, is moving his family into 40 Fowler St., a building that was foreclosed on earlier this year and has been occupied by protesters from City LifeVida Urbana since October.

Organizers from City Life contacted the former owner of the triple decker, who is now living in Brockton, and have arranged for St. Simon to pay him rent.

On Saturday, St. Simon joined City Life members and supporters at a rally held to highlight the strategies the group is using to help keep families who default on their mortgages from losing their homes.

The occupation is a tactic, along with eviction blockades and bank protests, that City Life is using to help fight a foreclosure crisis that has hit the predominantly black and Latino communities and Roxbury, Dorchester and Mattapan.

“It’s part of our three-pronged strategy,” said organizer Melonie Griffiths. “We also use attorneys and third-party financers.”

Working with public-interest lawyers and nonprofit finance organizations like Boston Community Capital (BCC), Griffiths said City Life has been able to help more than 100 Boston-area families retain their homes.

When banks foreclose on a property, they typically force the owners and tenants to vacate the building, sometimes using legal action and at others offering cash.

“After they foreclose and push people out, investors often get the properties for a lot less than what the families would be willing to pay to stay in them,” Griffiths said.

But City Life organizers say banks rarely if ever will negotiate a reduction in principal with homeowners who default on their mortgage.

Such was the case with Mohamad Nour, who bought a home in Revere six years ago for $333,000.

“Five years later, I couldn’t make my payments,” Nour said, speaking during the rally. “My son had a brain tumor. I lost my job. I had to stay in the hospital with him. I asked the bank for a loan modification.”

The bank refused. Nour turned to organizers at City Life, who arranged for Boston Community Capital to purchase Nour’s home for $150,000. BCC then agreed to sell the building back to Nour at cost.

“That’s principal reduction!” commented City Life Organizing Director Reggie Fuller.

“I’m going to sign the purchase and sales agreement next week,” Nour said.

Saturday’s rally included testimony from several City Life members who were able to re-structure their loans and remain in their homes. It also included a rhyme that hip hop artist and clothing designer Antonio Ennis has penned that has become a sort of an anthem for the movement.

“They got bail-outs/ and we’re getting thrown out” Ennis rapped, as audience members chimed in.

The rally also included an appearance by a giant paper-mâché banker, who bore a striking resemblance to Count Dracula, replete with blood-soaked fangs.

Griffiths stressed that protests are an important component of City Life’s strategy.

“You have to keep people in their homes, or the banks won’t work with them,” she said.

“It’s not Boston Community Capital that keeps people in their homes,” added Fuller. “It’s the rallies and the protests. We know as long as we’re resisting, people are going to keep their homes. That’s the end result. Our neighborhoods will be stabilized.”

Currently, there is a high concentration of foreclosures in the Four Corners neighborhood, according to Greater Four Corners Action Coalition Executive Director Marvin Martin.

“We have 115 homes in some stage of foreclosure in our area,” he said.

Four homes have been foreclosed on Fowler Street, which only runs one block.

Martin said the City Life occupation of the foreclosed Fowler Street property would bring needed attention to the problem.