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For cities, all foreclosure politics are local

With more than a half-million foreclosed homes on the market, and over 3 million borrowers behind on their mortgages, more cities are aggressively reaching out to hurting residents.
Cities Fight Foreclosures
Trenton, N.J.’s, mayor has asked pastors to preach at least one sermon on foreclosures. Church volunteers became walking billboards, wearing “Save Trenton Homes!” T-shirts, as the Rev. Donald Sullivan Medley did during his sermon.Mel Evans / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Just two months ago, Aaron Brokenbough had no clout and little say when lenders moved to foreclose on his home. His Philadelphia row house was scheduled for a sheriff’s sale, the end of the road for most homeowners who are behind in mortgage payments.

That was before a Philadelphia court decided to step in with this unusual order: Sheriff’s sales cannot go forward without a last-ditch effort by the lender and homeowner to work out a deal.

The court also gave Brokenbough some muscle, matching him with a volunteer attorney and housing counselor to take his side against his lender and their lawyers. Brokenbough feels a ray of hope.

“I’m overwhelmed,” said the 36-year-old former mail processor, who fell behind on payments after he lost his job and his wife incurred medical bills from a surgery. “I’m hoping to save my home.”

Philadelphia is just the latest in a growing number of cities — including Los Angeles, Baltimore, and Trenton, N.J. — that are taking matters into their own hands to help stop the nation’s housing crisis within their borders.

With more than a half-million foreclosed homes on the market, and over 3 million borrowers behind on their mortgages, more cities are aggressively reaching out to residents and filing lawsuits against lenders.

While politicians debate in Washington, many cities are on the front lines of the foreclosure crisis: fielding calls from desperate homeowners, and fighting vagrancy and crime around vacated properties.

“We can’t wait on the federal government,” said Douglas Palmer, mayor of Trenton, N.J., and the president of the U.S. Conference of Mayors. “We’re taking action.”

Cities are under the gun to act: A report released by the U.S. Conference of Mayors last November projected economic losses of $166 billion this year for 361 metropolitan areas. These stem from lost tax revenue and jobs as well as slower consumer spending that come with home equity declines, and don’t even include the financial toll of increased crime, fires and building code violations.

To try to recoup part of that money, some cities are suing lenders. But it’s not easy to go after federally regulated companies.

In January, Cleveland took the public nuisance route and sued 21 major investment banks and lenders, charging that their subprime lending practices devastated neighborhoods and hurt property values and city tax collections. Baltimore sued Wells Fargo & Co., alleging a pattern of predatory lending practices in its poorest neighborhoods. Minneapolis and Buffalo, N.Y. are engaged in similar litigation.

“Why would these mortgage lenders continue to enter deals with these people who they knew could not afford their loans?” said Robert Triozzi, Cleveland’s director of law. “To suggest (these financial institutions) didn’t know the consequences just defies logic.”

He blamed Wall Street greed and said the players relied on a scheme that could only work if home prices continued to rise.

“We’re going to hold them accountable for actions they have done here,” said Triozzi, who is seeking hundreds of millions of dollars in damages.

Wells Fargo said the lawsuit has no merit.

“The city seeks to use a single financial services company as a scapegoat for broad social problems that have plagued Baltimore for decades, including some caused by the city’s own actions,” Wells Fargo said in a statement. “The mortgage industry, however, says it is taking action to try to stop the rising tide of foreclosures.”

Last fall, many lenders and servicers banded together to form a group called the Hope Now Alliance. The lenders try to work out repayment plans, and can modify the terms of the loan by lowering the interest rates or forgive part of the debt.

Some cities are also trying to help homeowners catch up on their late payments.

This week in Jacksonville, Fla., — where the foreclosure rate is three times the national average — officials are launching a campaign to promote the city’s interest-free loans. Distressed homeowners can get up to $5,000, which will be forgiven if they stay in their homes for at least five years, said Dayatra Coles, manager of housing services.

Louisville, Ky., also is giving out up to $5,000 in loans. The loans will be forgiven if the homeowner stays put for a decade. The city has teamed up with the United Way to offer access to housing help in addition to the charity’s social services.

In order to battle a foreclosure rate that is 2.5 times the national average, according to First American CoreLogic, Trenton’s mayor has asked pastors to preach at least one sermon in June on foreclosures and to distribute information about where to get help. Church volunteers became walking billboards, wearing “Save Trenton Homes!” T-shirts with hotline numbers on the back.

Last Sunday, Rev. Donald Sullivan Medley of the Cadwalader-Asbury United Methodist Church in Trenton preached that there’s no shame in asking for help.

“Matthew chapter 7 talks about the wise and the foolish building their homes on the sand or on a rock,” he told his congregation. The house on the rock withstood winds, rain and floods, not the house on the sand.

“We have to prepare,” said Medley, whose trustees distributed foreclosure help information during service. Several people later came forward to get more information.

Los Angeles, meanwhile, is adding foreclosure counselors in neighborhood centers for jobs and city services. The city also is tapping neighborhood councils to fight blight. L.A. is watching other cities’ plans to buy up foreclosed properties and possibly use them for affordable housing, but in an area where homes can easily cost over $500,000, the cost of such a plan is a huge obstacle, said Gil Duran, spokesman for Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa.

Cities don’t have the financial or regulatory strength to stem the crisis, and need firmer backing from the federal government, said John Taylor, president of the National Community Reinvestment Coalition in Washington.

The federal government has taken several steps to prop up the housing market, but critics say Bush administration-backed efforts to help borrowers avoid foreclosure are falling short.

The government has expanded the authority of the Federal Housing Administration to allow more borrowers to refinance their loans, and to help home buyers purchase a foreclosed property.

In May, House lawmakers passed a bill to send $15 billion to states to buy and fix up foreclosed property. Proponents say the measure, opposed by President Bush, will prevent blight in neighborhoods plagued by abandoned homes. Lawmakers are also considering housing tax credit of up to $7,500 for first-time home-buyers.

Still, calls are growing for more government intervention, in the form of a plan for the government to guarantee as much as $300 billion in new loans to help borrowers refinance into cheaper, fixed-rate mortgages.

But while the Congressional infighting drags on, cities have to deal with the housing “sinkhole” day in and day out, Taylor said. “They recognize the federal government really isn’t moving that will make a difference fast enough.”

That’s why officials in cities like Philadelphia aren’t sitting still.

Last week, hundreds of people mobbed a court room in city hall after they were told about the court intervention program. Common Pleas Court Judge Annette Rizzo said “It was bedlam.”