HLS Clinic Launches Mattapan Initiative to Avert Foreclosures

With a $415,000 grant from the Massachusetts Attorney General’s Office—and the help of a groundbreaking new law that offers homeowners strong pre-foreclosure protections—the HLS WilmerHale Legal Services Center (LSC) has launched a new program to help fight foreclosures in Mattapan, one of Boston’s most challenged neighborhoods.

The Mattapan Initiative, which will have a special focus on pre-foreclosure efforts as well as expanding post-foreclosure work, is under the direction of Roger Bertling, a Senior Clinical Instructor and Director of the LSC’s Predatory Lending and Consumer Protection Unit. The grant has provided for the hiring of two full-time attorneys with expertise in fighting foreclosures as well as a community outreach coordinator to inform Mattapan residents of the initiative and their rights under the new law.

“We feel very fortunate that the money came in at the same time the law came into place,” says Bertling, who has been supervising HLS students in anti-foreclosure work at LSC since the foreclosure crisis first emerged over six years ago. “It places us in the forefront of people doing [anti-foreclosure] work, and in keeping with the tradition of LSC being at the edge of where legal work meets community need.”

In February 2012, 49 state attorneys general and the federal government announced an historic $25 billion settlement with the country’s five largest mortgage servicers over fraudulent mortgage practices. In addition to direct payments to some former homeowners, the settlement also provided funds to the states; Massachusetts, which received $44.5 million, has used some of the money to establish the AG’s HomeCorps program and for anti-foreclosure grants.

“These grants are designed to help Massachusetts homeowners impacted by the foreclosure crisis with direct financial and legal assistance,” says Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley, “and Harvard Law School—through the Mattapan Initiative—is doing just that. We are pleased to see this funding being used for critical foreclosure prevention efforts and mitigation services as we work to stabilize communities across the Commonwealth.”

Meanwhile, the new state law—unlike any other in the country, Bertling says—offers homeowners who’ve been victimized by predatory loans strong new protections including requiring lenders to offer loan modifications before they can proceed with foreclosure, in many circumstances. In the past, homeowners usually had to wait until foreclosure began to have any success in fighting back. The Act Preventing Unnecessary and Unlawful Foreclosures was passed by the Massachusetts legislature last August, and the Mattapan Initiative will be at the leading edge of making sure banks comply with it, Bertling says.

“It puts another tool in the legal services attorney’s tool box for getting the homeowner some leverage so they can stay in their home at an affordable payment, which is our goal,” adds Charlie Carriere, who was hired as a clinical fellow in the Predatory Lending Practice through the grant to focus on pre-foreclosure cases. Carriere joined the Mattapan Initiative in March after serving as a clinical fellow at the California Monitor Program, where his work focused on enforcement of the National Mortgage Settlement.

Since launching in March, the Mattapan Initiative has interviewed scores of Mattapan residents, although full representation of most of them has been on hold until recently, when the precise parameters of the law became clear. Brandon German, a marketing expert with community organizing experience hired with the grant funds to head community outreach for the Initiative, has been going door-to-door in Mattapan to inform residents of the new law and the work of the LSC, as well as attending community events and holding information sessions. “Our whole goal is to find people before they are displaced,” he says. “We want to prevent displacement and homelessness, and protect neighborhoods.” His message has been enthusiastically received, he says, although the biggest hurdle is convincing homeowners that LSC doesn’t charge them for its legal services.

Now that regulations related to the act were finally promulgated, in June, Bertling expects pre-foreclosure legal activity to ratchet up in the next weeks as lenders and attorneys react to the new requirements—just in time for the clinical students in the new academic year. Starting in the fall, students in two LSC units—the predatory lending/consumer unit and the post-foreclosure housing unit—will participate in the Mattapan Initiative, presenting them with exceptional education opportunities, Bertling says.

“They will be looking at an entirely new law with new regulations that no one has interpreted before,” says Bertling. “There is no case law. So it’s a whole new version of learning the law, with no precedent to rely on. They’ll have to figure out what the law means and how it will be implemented. That’s a rare opportunity.”

HLS is a national leader in fighting the foreclosure crisis. Both LSC and the Harvard Legal Aid Bureau have been working for years to assist tenants and homeowners fight wrongful evictions, especially since the foreclosure crisis of 2008, including through the nationally renowned Project No One Leaves, launched by two former bureau students.

The Mattapan Initiative is an expansion of those efforts, with a unique slant: focusing on particular section of Boston. Bertling says they chose to focus on Mattapan for a number of reasons, including that it is a traditionally underserved area, has an overwhelming minority population—primarily African-American and Haitian-American—that have difficulty accessing legal help, and has an unusually high percentage of single-family homes for Boston.

“Folks are still struggling and bearing the brunt of these incredibly predatory loans made some time ago that only now are rearing their ugly heads and making it so families can’t make their mortgage payments, which sets off the foreclosure process,” says Julia Devanthéry, who was hired with the grant money as a staff attorney for the Initiative, and will focus on post-foreclosure work in Mattapan. “The roots of this crisis are in the bad loans that were made in a totally deregulated environment and were predatory to begin with, and were never meant to succeed.”

“It’s a really exciting opportunity for all of us,” says Bertling. “We have a longstanding, great relationship with the [state] Attorney General’s office, and this is another way they’re showing how highly they think of our work.”

Read more: Hope for homeowners facing foreclosure in Mattapan from the July 30, 2013 Boston Globe.