St. Ambrose Takes legal services into the community

Originally Posted in The Daily Record

Joe Surkiewicz
The legal program at St. Ambrose Housing Aid Center isn’t waiting for clients to find its midtown Baltimore office. Instead, the nonprofit is going into the community to solve civil legal problems before they escalate – and with a permanent, brick-and-mortar presence.

Earlier this month, St. Ambrose opened a walk0in clinic at 108 E. 25th St., where people with civil legal problems can get a free 30-minute consultation with a lawyer.

“You can’t sit in an office and wait for low-income people to find you,” said Jeanette Cole, St. Ambrose’s director of legal services. “They face too many hurdles, like transportation or child care. If you don’t get to them, the problems don’t get better. You must address the legal issues early on.”

Since its founding in 1968, St. Ambrose has helped more than 100,000 families with their housing needs, including counseling for first-time home buyers, a home sharing service, rental services, and a home redevelopment program that renovates vacant houses.

Foreclosure services and the legal program counsel people who can’t pay their mortgage and provide direct representation to people in default and facing foreclosure. Increasingly, the legal staff is engaging clients with legal problems that aren’t directly related to housing – but can ultimately lead to economic instability.

The key, Cole said, is getting to them early.

“What we’re seeing is that people get in denial, they get overwhelmed and deny there’s a problem,” she said. “If they knew there’s someone they can ask for help, it can prevent a problem form turning into a disaster.”

One example is payday loans.

“We try to get to them before it turns into a problem,” Cole said. “We try to firm up their financial stability so that their housing remains stable. We meet with them informally or we schedule appointments.”

The new clinic, which will formally open next month with Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake in attendance, is open Monday, Wednesday and Friday from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.

“I hired an administrative assistant and a community liaison who also works for Councilman Nick Mosby,” Cole said. “He goes to community meetings and is really good at speaking and getting the word out…He’s a live presence in the community.”
Now that the office is staffed and operating, the next step is to meet with churches and schools where St. Ambrose staff can make presentations.

“We go where the clients are,” Cole added. “Although we’re citywide, we’re focused on the neighborhood near our office to help people access legal services. We take it to the and help them with their problems. It’s to help families and the neighborhood.”

Many people who come to St. Ambrose for housing counseling also have legal problems that need to be addressed. “By assisting with whatever needs to be done, we get to them as soon as we can,” Cole said. “It ultimately helps children, families and the neighborhood.”

Schools are also a source of potential clients.

“We’re contacting counselors to see what issues they’re seeing with the children,” Cole said. “We hope to meet with parents before or after school. We’ve prepared lots of educational brochures and show them how to use the People’s Law Library and our online intake.”

With a legal staff of just three lawyers, St. Ambrose is limited in the amount of direct representation it can provide. “We can’t represent everyone,” Cole noted. “We try to identify real problems. We can do something to help them a lot of the time, and then offer education, referrals and advice.”

The legal program will continue its collaboration with the University of Maryland Carey School of Law in providing low-cost legal help to people in the community.

“We’ll continue to work with the JustAdvice program,” Cole said. “We schedule sessions twice a month at The Living Well, a storefront available for community meetings that we rent. Maryland Law students set it up. Sometimes we have 15 people with scheduled appointments.”

Law students are also the focus of new legal clerkships at St. Ambrose.

“It gives them an opportunity to work with clients and shows them the public service aspect of the profession, either so they can pursue a career or use the experience on their resume, Cole said. “It also helps the see the huge demand for pro bono.”

Joe Surkiewicz is director of communications at the Homeless Persons Representation Project in Baltimore. His email is jsurkiewicz@hprplaw.org

Homebuyer education as foreclosure prevention

homeownershipNew research has been released on the effectiveness of pre-purchase housing counseling and education – a core service available at St. Ambrose Housing Aid Center. The research found that homebuyers who received counseling were one-third less likely to fall behind on their mortgages 90 days or more, two years after taking out the loan, compared to homebuyers who did not receive similar counseling and education. The research was done for NeighborWorks America, a national nonprofit affiliated with St. Ambrose Housing Aid Center, by Neil Mayer and Associates and Experian, and is based on approximately 75,000 mortgage loans originated in 2007, 2008 and 2009.

Read the Executive Summary here >>

Read the Full Report here >>

The research findings have important implications for St. Ambrose Housing Aid Center and the entire housing counseling and education industry.  While we have long known anecdotally that pre-purchase housing counseling and education provided by certified professionals at St. Ambrose is effective at helping to create homeowners who are less likely to default, this research provides significant backup.

The NeighborWorks America research shows how a small investment up front that finances the availability of pre-purchase housing counseling and education can help homeowners avoid financial losses by potentially staving off serious delinquency that has a good chance of extending into foreclosure, help prevent disruption of family life, and help keep communities stable that might be hurt by home foreclosure.

Estimates vary, but total losses due to foreclosure borne by local governments, servicers and households can exceed $50,000 per foreclosure, according to a report from the Joint Economic Committee of the U.S. Congress.

According to the Mortgage Bankers Association National Delinquency Survey for the fourth quarter of 2012, the percentage of residential mortgage loans 90 days or more past due across the country was 6.78 percent, and 3.74 percent of homeowners nationwide were in foreclosure. By providing NeighborWorks pre-purchase housing counseling and education to more consumers, it’s likely that tens of thousands of the more than 1.5 million homeowners who received a default notice in 2012 may have been able to avoid entering foreclosure.

Repeat Homebuyers

Interestingly, the NeighborWorks America research shows that even repeat homebuyers benefit from receiving NeighborWorks pre-purchase housing counseling and education. According to the report, repeat homebuyers who received the services also are about one-third less likely to fall 90 days or more behind in their mortgages than repeat homebuyers who didn’t receive NeighborWorks pre-purchase housing counseling and education.

“More analysis of the data is required to determine the factors for the repeat homebuyer results,” said NeighborWorks America CEO Eileen Fitzgerald. “But one thing is clear from the data: housing counseling is effective, even if you’ve been a homeowner before.”

Home Matters™ Launch Is Today!

Today, in Washington, DC, National NeighborWorks® Association joined (NNA) with a coast-to-coast coalition to launch a unique national movement called Home Matters. Home Matters™ aims to build public support for the essential role that Home plays as the bedrock for thriving lives, families, and a stronger nation. As it expands, Home Matters™ will go beyond housing and illuminate the connections between stable housing and other important facets of American life such as:

  • Individual Success: Home recharges adults and children alike for the day ahead.
  • Education: Children in stable homes learn and achieve more in school.
  • Health: Healthy habits take root more easily in stable affordable homes.
  • Public Safety: Stable homes make communities safer.
  • A Strong Economy: By having a Home that is affordable, people of all income levels have more to spend and support the economy.

Participating in the two-day launch, today and tomorrow, are leaders of more than 150 local and regional housing and community development organizations from across the nation – many of them NNA members – as well as national entities including NNA, Citi Community Development and Wells Fargo. Members of the U.S. Senate and U.S. House of Representatives will join us this evening, and U.S. Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Shaun Donovan will speak with the coalition tomorrow. Please visit the Home Matters™ website (www.HomeMattersAmerica.com), share your insights, tell your colleagues and friends about the movement, and connect to it through Facebook and Twitter. It’s time for the crucial roles that Home plays to be more broadly understood.

Why Foreclosures Threaten Baltimore City Renters

Foreclosure timeline in the State of Maryland.
Foreclosure timeline in the State of Maryland.  For more information visit www.MDHope.org.

The foreclosure crisis is predominantly viewed as a crisis of homeownership, primarily affecting homeowners who for any number of reasons cannot afford to stay current on the mortgage.  However, this perception minimizes the fact that areas such as Baltimore City are experiencing a simultaneous crisis of tenancy.

Foreclosures in Baltimore City threaten renters far more than in the rest of the state.  This threat is particularly distressing because a renting family may unknowingly and wrongfully face eviction despite being current on their lease.  Tenants are at extreme risk when landlords do not inform them about foreclosure actions, or when they are not aware of their right to retain possession following a foreclosure sale.  [Information for renters facing foreclosure can be found HERE.]

The scope and implications of the threat to tenants are not immediately evident in the data published by the Maryland Foreclosure Task Force Report in January 2012.  From January to September of 2011, 85% of all Notices of Intent to Foreclose statewide were sent to owner-occupied properties, with the remainder sent to investor-owned properties; likely occupied by renters.  On the surface, this proportional threat to tenants is not striking.

However, in Baltimore City the percentage of notices sent to owner-occupied properties drops to 70%. This number drops further when looking beyond the notices to the foreclosure actions which were actually filed.  St. Ambrose staff recently compiled data on foreclosure actions filed in Baltimore City from September through November of 2012.  Of the 618 foreclosure actions filed during this time, 334 of the properties were not the owners’ principal residence, according to data from the State Department of Assessments and Taxation.  A mere 54% of the properties are owner occupied; the remaining 46% are investment/rental properties.

This data shows that the threat to renters is largely local and entirely real.  A disproportionately large number of Baltimore City foreclosures filings are on properties which were purchased as investments.  Occupying these properties are tenants at risk of being displaced due to foreclosure actions against the landlords.  These tenants comprise over half of Baltimore residents. Census data from 2010 shows that 52% of Baltimore City homes were rented.  The Census counted 296,685 housing units, of which 84% were occupied.  This leaves approximately 250,000 occupied properties, of which 130,000 are rented.  Families in any of these 130,000 properties could be current on their rent and then be shocked to find foreclosure or eviction notices.

There is also a measurable impact of foreclosures on children in these rental properties.  According to recent reports by the Baltimore Neighborhood Indicators Alliance, 2.7% of students in Baltimore City schools were affected by foreclosures in 2009.  Of these children, only 51% lived in owner-occupied properties.  This number was down from 73% in 2005.  The report attributes the increasing impact on children in rental properties to the surge in investment property purchases during the housing boom.

The Task Force Report, much like the nationwide conversation on foreclosures, pays minimal attention to the risks faced by tenants.  The fact is that the impact on tenants is a rarely noted yet extremely troublesome consequence of the foreclosure crisis. The plight of tenants is overshadowed by that of homeowners, but that cannot continue in a city where a foreclosure is just as likely to impact the occupancy of a renter as it is that of a homeowner, where the majority of residents rent, and where the impact on children is so significant.

If you are a renter, know your rights.  Open any and all mail addressed to “All Occupants” or “Current Resident,” as it may relate to a foreclosure action.  Occupants of a property are required to be sent such filings in foreclosure cases.  If a property is active in foreclosure but has not yet been sold at foreclosure, you are still obligated to pay the rent, and the landlord may initiate an eviction proceeding for failure to do so.  You also have the right to remain in the property during the foreclosure action pursuant to your lease, and the landlord must honor the terms of your security deposit in any event.  Following a foreclosure sale, most tenants have the right to remain in the property until the end of their lease.  Tenants renting month to month must be given 90 days notice to vacate.

Foreclosure purchasers who ignore your rights or who are not aware that renters are occupying the property may institute an eviction proceeding.  An eviction may not occur until the court has awarded possession to the foreclosure purchaser following ratification of the sale, and you should be mailed copies of these filings and orders.  Baltimore City occupants will receive notices of eviction by mail 14 days prior to an eviction and by posting on the property 7 days before an eviction.  Residents in other counties may not receive specific notices of the eviction date.

If you have reason to believe your landlord is facing foreclosure, or if you are facing eviction or foreclosure yourself, free legal assistance is available.  Contact St. Ambrose Housing Aid Center – 410-366-8550 – as soon as possible to see how we may be able to assist you.