Almost 50 people, representing more than 20 MACDC Member organizations, joined Attorney General Maura Healey and members of her senior staff in Worcester on May 20, to discuss how to collaborate on tackling some of the most serious housing problems facing our communities.
The welcoming remarks from the Attorney General, who noted that her office strives to be “The People’s Law Firm”, were inspiring. She commended the “righteous work” done by CDCs, and noted the importance of work that takes care of us all. After other senior officials from the AG’s office (AGO) gave an overview of the AG’s initiatives (AGO 101!), we got down to the morning’s hard work- breaking into smaller groups, co-led by AGO staff and CDC leaders, to discuss three topics: foreclosure prevention, abandoned and distressed properties, and fair access to housing.
Foreclosure counselors noted that foreclosures are still prevalent, despite a common perception that the crisis is over. Some people with prior mortgage modifications are in trouble again due to unemployment or other economic problems, and counselors note that some loan servicers are not responding adequately to their efforts to help homeowners in trouble. There is a concern that many struggling homeowners are not reaching out to counselors who can help them, matched by a concern that if more people reached out to counseling agencies, the agencies may not have the staff capacity, or financial resources, to meet everyone’s needs. Counselors indicated they would like to work more closely with the Attorney General’s office, and AGO staff said that they are available to assist and to intervene with servicers who are not being responsive. All agreed that resuming monthly conference calls with the AGO would be helpful.
Representatives from the AG’s Abandoned Housing Initiative (AHI) described two programs they administer. AHI, which was formed in 2008, offers loans and grants to communities that address abandoned properties through Receivership, whereby a Court-appointed receiver can assume management of distressed properties, conduct repairs, and place a lien on the property to cover the costs. More recently, the AGO started a Strategic Demolition Fund, which has provided $125,000 to each of four agencies statewide to make funding available to communities to help with demolition of properties that are bringing down neighborhoods. Participants also noted the importance of collaborating on identifying the best strategies for addressing distressed properties.
Fair Access to Housing:
CDC leaders and AGO staff discussed the many obstacles to building affordable housing in suburban towns, including low density zoning, lack of infrastructure, unreasonable water and sewage requirements, changing political leadership and abutter lawsuits. Participants agreed that the AGO could be helpful in educating municipal leaders about their responsibilities under the Fair Housing Act as a way to discourage the most egregious practices. There was also a brief discussion about the common practice among property insurance companies in Massachusetts of charging higher premiums for properties with Section 8 tenants – or denying coverage all together. AGO staff expressed concern about this practice and MACDC agreed to provide them with more information.
After the breakout sessions, participants reconvened as a group to share what was discussed. The AGO and MACDC are planning how to follow up on the issues identified on May 20. Together, a community-minded Attorney General and community-based development organizations make a powerful team for tackling community problems.