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Foreclosure crisis hits home in Somerville

Posted by Alix Roy  May 21, 2010 10:04 AM

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When Susan Vallery and her 12-year-old daughter moved into a Marshall Street apartment in mid-January, they had no idea that the property was in the process of being foreclosed. An order of notice was served to the owner in December, but the issue was never mentioned to Vallery, who went through a real estate agent to secure the apartment.

“I had no idea at all that it was being foreclosed,” she said on Monday. “I just didn't know where to take it from there.”

Vallery is not alone in her plight, according to the Community Action Agency of Somerville and Cambridge and Somerville Legal Services, who have been studying foreclosures in the city over a three-year period. Since the beginning of 2007, 3 percent of all residential properties in Somerville have been in some stage of foreclosure, their report states.

“We're still seeing lots and lots of properties in foreclosure,” said Todd Kaplan, a senior attorney at Cambridge and Somerville Legal Services.. “It doesn't feel like the economy is getting better so it's having a huge negative effect on our community.”

Since last November, trained volunteers have knocked on doors of 208 properties identified as being in some stage of foreclosure and spoken to at least 90 residents about their rights in the process. Thirty-three people, including Vallery, have attended monthly meetings at CAAS since opening their door to a volunteer.
“They put me in the right direction in what I needed to do,” said Vallery. “It sort of gave me a little bit of a safety net that...I wasn't going to be thrown out into the street.”

Although the foreclosure process does not always end in eviction, 16 percent of properties foreclosed within the last three years were subject to a tenant/landlord dispute, said Cambridge and Somerville Legal Services volunteer Mie Inouye. In all 81 cases, the landlord was represented by an attorney, but only 14 tenants had legal representation, she said. The court sided with the landlord in 73 percent of the cases.

On Monday, Ward 6 Alderman Rebekah Gewirtz questioned how the Somerville foreclosure data compared to other communities. A map showing red dots for every foreclosed property in the city seemed to portray a dismal picture of the local housing scene, she said.
“This seems troubling to me, but you might tell me this is nothing,” she said.

According to Kaplan, Somerville's numbers pale in comparison to larger cities such as Springfield and Boston. An encouraging figure not included in the report is the low number of vacant properties in Somerville left over from the process, he said.
“Investors are buying the properties, we're not seeing vacant properties, which is a huge difference,” he said. “We do know there are communities that are really devastated.”

According to Ida Keir, a Foreclosure Prevention Counselor at Cambridge Neighborhood Apartment Housing Services who works in many surrounding cities, the foreclosure problem in Somerville is very real.

“Somerville has been by far the most busy for us,” she said. 

To address the issue, Kaplan encouraged aldermen to consider adopting an ordinance that would require owners to notify tenants of potential foreclosures and register and maintain foreclosed building until the proceedings are complete. Boston currently has an ordinance in place holding property owners responsible for registration and upkeep of foreclosed homes, he said.

Somerville Director of Housing Phil Ercolini said he would support an ordinance that addresses concerns related to foreclosures, adding that a similar petition was entertained last year. Although he appreciated the data produced by the agencies, more collaboration with the city would have eliminated redundancies, he said.

“To hear this tonight is a little disturbing,” he said to Kaplan on Monday. “I would have liked to be privy to this discussion, maybe there's something i could have offered to you.”

The city has fielded eight-10 calls to 311 every week in the past month related to foreclosures, Ercolini said. The main focus is making people aware of the process and where to go for assistance, he said. The city currently refers owners and tenants to the Community Action Agency of Somerville.
“I always say one foreclosure is one too many,” he said. “You have to do what you can to get people information.”

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