Housing programs in the City of Boston have been on the cutting edge of innovation for decades. The city leadership is committed to long-term efforts to educate new mortgage borrowers, support existing homeowners, mitigate foreclosures and stabilize neighborhoods.
One of the most recognized institutions, the Boston Home Center, was created in 1996 to serve as a one-stop resource for first-time homebuyers and homeowners. Since its inception, the Boston Home Center has provided thousands of residents with the tools they need to achieve financial literacy, purchase a new home, get help with needed repairs, and obtain advice when facing credit or financial problems. Its outreach efforts include regular foreclosure clinics, direct mailings to homeowners in high foreclosure areas, and offering community events and seminars. Information about available services can be found via ads in bus shelters, on-line, and through daily newspapers.
Building on this foundation, and expanding the vision to combat the growing number of predatory lending practices, the city launched the Don’t Borrow Trouble campaign in 1999. A significant effort was put forth to warn the general public about the hidden dangers of the many new loan products and to protect economically fragile homeowners once the introductory phase of low interest on their mortgages was at an end.
Although Don’t Borrow Trouble was certainly in the vanguard of foreclosure prevention efforts, by 2002, other housing markets were beginning to worry about the impact of predatory lending and easy access to credit. Freddie Mac adopted Don’t Borrow Trouble as a national campaign and made the materials created in Boston available to any city, state, or county government. By the end of 2004, more than 30 U.S. cities and two states had adopted and adapted the campaign to suit their own needs.
As the full force of the economic crisis hit the real estate and employment markets in 2008, Boston, while not immune, was prepared to respond. In early 2008, Mayor Thomas Menino created a Foreclosure Intervention Team (FIT) to specifically address neighborhoods in foreclosure crisis. This inter-agency team achieved a solid record of foreclosure prevention.
The Foreclosure Intervention Team initially focused on Hendry Street in the Dorchester neighborhood, where one in three properties was either in foreclosure or at-risk. The Team approach was broad: it systematically addressed foreclosure-related problems that affected a neighborhood where boarded properties with overgrown yards had become all too common, leading to a rise in all forms of crime, infrastructure deterioration, and general neighborhood decline.
Not only did the Foreclosure Intervention Team work to stabilize the at-risk homeowners still in the Hendry Street area, but city departments also secured and boarded empty buildings, ridding them of squatters and drug users. They also towed cars, cleaned empty lots, planted trees, fixed sidewalks and actively patrolled the neighborhood, meeting with the community members throughout. Ultimately, the city made the decision to directly invest in the neighborhood, negotiating with the banks on bulk purchases of real-estate owned (REO) property for redevelopment into stable, affordable homes.
Although the FIT model of direct intervention was applied to use at the neighborhood level, the city continued its outreach efforts to individual homeowners in financial trouble, underwater on their mortgage, or at-risk of default. Homeowners who are recorded as delinquent on mortgage payments are contacted by the Boston Home Center Foreclosure Team by mail or phone before foreclosure proceedings are begun and offered free and confidential counseling services. To make the process even more convenient, the Home Center contracts with local non-profit agencies to provide counseling in the neighborhoods most affected by foreclosure, making counselors both more convenient and accessible in multiple languages.
The interlinked formula of education, prevention, intervention, and remediation are at the heart of Boston’s strategy to serve homeowners. Well-tested tools and deliberate leadership have created programming that improves the resilience of neighborhoods and provides opportunities for wealth creation and economic prosperity for the city’s residents.