Teams of volunteers hit the streets of North Minneapolis Monday evening, knocking on doors to offer help in avoiding the nightmare of foreclosure. The Northside Community Reinvestment Coalition (NCRC) and several partners and allies began working on their plan months ago. The first step was identifying at-risk homes. Volunteers spent several months combing through mortgage records to identify homes with adjustable rate mortgages. Now they were ready to contact those homeowners directly, offering help in dealing with banks and lenders as their mortgage payments were about to re-set.
All of the organizations involved have championed the foreclosure cause in various ways for the last several years. This time, they are taking up a broader approach by empowering residents and targeting banks and lenders directly. Jewish Community Action (JCA) community organizer David Snyder said the coalition is modeled after other community reinvestment coalitions around the country working to negotiate fair lending agreements with banks. “The goal was to create a coalition where Northside organizations can take the lead and figure out how they wanted to address the crisis and address long-term issues of financial discrimination and fair access to credit,” he said.
JCA, which had already been doing some work in foreclosure prevention, had the idea of offering foreclosure counseling to those at risk of losing their homes. They approached Hennepin County’s records office requesting an actual list of North Minneapolis residents with adjustable rate mortgages. Snyder explained that they wanted to catch these contracts before the rates changed.
“We targeted the Northside first because it’s sort of ground zero for foreclosures,” Snyder said. North Minneapolis has the highest rate of foreclosure in the state.
Out of 76,000 mortgages that originated in Hennepin County in 2007, fifteen hundred of them originated from the ‘near north’ neighborhoods (Near North, Willard Hay, Jordan, Hawthorne, and Harrison). More than 20 percent, some 358 of the mortgages found in these neighborhoods were subprime adjustable rate mortgages.
“In some neighborhoods [in Hennepin County], there was a significant drop-off of adjustable rate mortgages being originated. With the new laws, which required that applicants’ income be verified to qualify for the full indexed rate, we expected a drop off, but in some neighborhoods, one in four [mortgages] stayed the same, “said Jeff Skrenes, Hawthorne Neighborhood Community Housing Director. “In North Minneapolis, we’ve lost as much as seventy percent of our equity in homes. Even in other pockets, you don’t see that same [amount].”
Last year, Minnesota ACORN co-authored legislation to challenge lending practices. “[Minnesota] has the strongest anti-predatory lending law in the country,” said Brandon Nessen, head organizer and executive director of Minnesota ACORN. According to the organization’s website, the law “requires brokers to act in the best interest of the borrower.”
NCRC’s foreclosure prevention outreach strategy involved those who know the problem best – neighbors and allies of those who’ve experienced foreclosure. Whether or not they are losing their homes personally, the entire community is feeling the effects.
“The foreclosure crisis has changed the physical appearance of the neighborhood,” said Jerry Moore, executive director of the Jordan Area Community Council (JACC). “The quality of life is decreasing as a result of vacant homes and the sight of boarded windows, neglected properties, displaced renters, and fears about crime. It has also disconnected community organizations from its resident leaders. Many of our established families have left the neighborhood either in embarrassment or lack of education or information.”
JCA recognized that many residents feel they have to bear the burden alone. “[Someone] might get a letter from the City or a letter from their bank and people just wouldn’t open it because they’d be too scared. About half of the people who go into foreclosure never reach out for help,” Snyder said.
The coalition is looking not only to established leadership amongst themselves, but also to new leadership from the margins. “We are creating a base of resident leaders who are knowledgeable about the issues,” said Nessen, “so residents can influence the process before it is too late. It’s very important for residents to weigh in on what kind of community [they] want to rebuild…it has a big impact on how the Northside will look in five to ten years.”
To implement their strategy, the coalition has adopted the ACORN model of door-knocking, where resident leaders can offer counseling and other resources face to face.
Accountability is the backbone of this anti-foreclosure strategy. Organizers and volunteers have already established that there are a high number of adjustable rate mortgages in one concentrated area. Now, they have to get the culprits to acknowledge this fact and demand them to modify their contracts to increase residents’ chances of staying in their homes.
“We’re setting up calls with Chase, Countrywide (Bank of America) and others, asking them what they are willing to do,” explained Nessen. That way, the coalition can conclude its research knowing which companies created the most problems. “We’ll be able to show which companies are stepping up to the plate with modifications and expose which ones are dragging their feet. We can use this as a standard to challenge other companies,” he said.
Tackling the foreclosure crisis is only one aspect of the coalition’s vision for helping the Northside sustain long-term wealth. “We didn’t want to just take care of the surface problem. We wanted to address the root causes too,” said Snyder.
Nessen says they are looking at other “ways that wealth is being drained out of the community.” He gave examples of companies that offer payday lending and check cashing services. “We are challenging banks and lenders to offer good, sound products to build assets…give people in this community the same access to good financial products as suburban or wealthy communities by engaging the population as a real clientele base and in a fair way that doesn’t exploit their vulnerabilities,” he said.
Lauretta Dawolo Towns is a freelancer for several local community and ethnic news outlets. She is also a mentor in the Big Brothers, Big Sisters program and a consultant with the Girls in Action program at Patrick Henry High School. Towns is a resident of the McKinley neighborhood in North Minneapolis where she lives with her husband and newborn son.