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Dorchester residents fighting Fannie’s foreclosure evictions

Eliza Dewey
Dorchester residents fighting Fannie’s foreclosure evictions
State Rep. Evandro Carvalho speaks to housing advocates with City Life/Vida Urbana at a Dorchester rally protesting foreclosures and residential displacement.

On a street lined with triple-deckers near Dorchester’s Ronan Park, a crowd of about 40 people gathered last week outside Maria Baptista’s house as the sun set to stage a protest against the foreclosure of her home and her ongoing eviction process.

The rally was both a sign of solidarity for their friend and an outcry against what the group sees as a broader crisis of residential displacement in Boston’s working-class neighborhoods that’s fueled by a mix of factors, including foreclosures, the erosion of rent control, and the proliferation of large, higher-end developments that contribute to rent increases outpacing wage gains for many workers.

The vigil, organized by the housing advocacy group City Life/Vida Urbana, focused specifically on foreclosures of properties held by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the federally-funded housing giants that are the nation’s largest mortgage holders. City Life/Vida Urbana is a member of both the Boston-based Coalition for Occupied Homes in Foreclosure (COHIF) and the national Right to the City Alliance.

The crowd chanted “Fannie Mae, you’re no good, get them out of our neighborhood!” Housing activists told stories of various instances in which COHIF had stepped in to help local homeowners in distress. COHIF sometimes negotiates with Fannie Mae to purchase foreclosed properties from them so that occupants can stay in their homes, albeit as tenants instead of owners. Maureen Flynn, executive director of COHIF, says the strategy enables the group to keep properties affordable for existing residents using a package of state, city, and private foundation grants and loans that allow COHIF to charge affordable rents and improve the properties’ conditions.

State Rep. Evandro Carvalho, who grew up in the area and lives just a few blocks away from Baptista, came to the vigil to show his support and speak to the broader issue of rising housing costs.

“My mother couldn’t afford a home in Dorchester anymore,” he said. “She had to buy a home in Brockton. Not that there’s anything wrong with Brockton, but she would have liked to stay in her home.”

The protesters also called for “just cause” legislation, which would limit eviction to a specified list of circumstances and include a mediation procedure between parties.

“What a radical idea — a bank should have to have a reason to evict somebody!” one of the organizers exclaimed.

Current Massachusetts law allows landlords to pursue so-called “no-fault” eviction cases in court as a means to evict a tenant. No-fault cases do not require the landlord to provide a specific reason for eviction. According to data from Right to the City Boston, twenty percent of evictions in Massachusetts are no-fault – a minority of cases but still a significant percentage.

Housing disruptions

Housing advocates argue that foreclosure and eviction together help drive displacement of working-class communities. Maria Christina Blanco, an organizer with City Life/Vida Urbana, says that despite the legal costs associated with the eviction process, it may “look better on the books” for banks or investors holding foreclosed properties to evict low-income tenants – either through no-fault evictions or waiting for people to fall behind on their rents – and then resell the property for a higher price. However, she says, this process has a long-term negative effect on the housing market and the neighborhood in general.

Because banks are basing their decisions on speculation about the kinds of future offers they might get rather than the real offer in front of them from organizations like COHIF, housing prices rise over time and the market experiences the same kind of speculation-based instability that contributed to the national housing crisis in the first place.

Advocates argue that foreclosure doesn’t have to lead to eviction, and that efforts should be made to ensure occupants can stay in the building as renters and also be able to buy back the properties if possible.

City Life argues further that in order to avoid even getting to the point of foreclosure in the first place, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac should reduce the principal for borrowers in underwater mortgages.

She says, however, that banks have raised the concern that doing so would create a perverse incentive for people to try and game the system. According to that argument, people might get themselves in hot water on purpose so they can negotiate a lower principal on their mortgage. Blanco says such logic is faulty.

“Obviously a singular concern for the bottom line is how the business world works, but that’s not how people feel about their homes where they live and raise their families,” she says. “That argument is crazy.”

Blanco also emphasizes that there does not need to be a division between renters and owners that conversations about real estate often spark. She says the national housing crisis highlighted the vulnerability of working- and middle-class homeowners to having their assets stripped and their access to credit restricted.

“You can find yourself a tenant again, even if you were an owner,” she says.

She also adds that City Life/Vida Urbana is pushing for a kind of no-fault eviction legislation that would not apply to owner-occupants, due to concerns about the needs of working-class homeowners.

The rally was not just about sad stories, however. Alma Chislom, a native of Dorchester who now lives close to where she grew up, shared her story of being part of a COHIF pilot program that she says saved her house. Soon after she moved into her rental unit in a triple-decker in 2012, she learned that the building was going up for an auction because the landlord was behind on his mortgage payments.

She approached City Life, only to discover that her landlord had also approached the organization separately. The organization was able to bring in a contractor to bulk-buy the building and three other similar properties for a period of two years. In the meantime, COHIF went about trying to find lenders to back the properties for the long term.

Chislom says the process was nerve-wracking because the organization was turned down by multiple lenders. However, she says in the end the group was able to bring in four lenders that successfully bought the four properties. Chislom just signed her new lease this past week. “I feel really stable right now,” she says.

Inequality rises

Organizers are planning a rally at City Hall for April 7 to highlight the broader issue of displacement, which has been a concern for many in Boston’s low-income neighborhoods. Last week the Banner reported on rapidly-rising rents in Roxbury, and a new report by the Brookings Institute showed that Boston is third among U.S. cities in terms of income inequality after Atlanta and San Francisco — up from the city’s fourth place the year before. Housing advocates also emphasize the extent to which working-class minority neighborhoods were targeted by the predatory subprime loans that drove the national housing crisis. The high rate of foreclosures then destroyed the credit history of many low-income families who had invested most of their savings in their homes.

Beyond the just-cause legislation, advocates organizing the April 7 event hope to build support for a development policy that would create and preserve more affordable housing units, with an emphasis on the use of public land for such developments and more assistance for small property owners to help them keep rents at rates that low-income tenants can afford.

In an ironic turn of events, just as the Banner reporter left the vigil for Baptista, a man pulled up in a car to ask about the safety of the area because he was from out of town and considering buying a condo on that street.