IT’S A TUESDAY NIGHT IN AUGUST, and about 70 people are seated in rows of folding chairs in a large room at City Life headquarters, part of Jamaica Plain’s converted Sam Adams brewery complex. Protest placards painted with slogans such as “We Shall Not Be Moved” and “Reduce Principal Now” hang on the walls around the room. A newcomer named Juan stands up and tells his story, which involves a missed mortgage payment, an unforeseen illness, “begging letters” sent to the bank, loan-modification negotiations cut short by the lender’s surprise decision to foreclose and sell the property to an investor, and unreturned calls and letters. He speaks of meeting with other groups and organizations, to no avail. Now, he says, he’s ready to fight for his home.
At the front of the room stands Melonie Griffiths, an energetic, powerfully built woman with close-cropped bleach-blond hair. She’s one of the group’s lead organizers. In 2004 Griffiths bought a two-family home in Dorchester for $470,000. At the time, she says, she insisted to her mortgage broker at Zeus Funding that the monthly payments for the house were going to be a stretch on her salary as a teacher in the Boston public schools. She says the broker assured her that she’d be able to refinance at a lower rate two months down the road. She never got the refinancing, and after struggling to make her mortgage payments, she fell behind, eventually going into foreclosure.
While Griffiths was in foreclosure, Attorney General Martha Coakley was in the process of suing Zeus Funding for deceptively giving mortgages to people who couldn’t afford them. In 2009 the company was barred from doing business in the state, but that didn’t help Griffiths. After exhausting her options in housing court and visiting as many local politicians as she could, she, her three children, and her downstairs tenants were facing imminent eviction.
City Life had launched a program around that time to help tenants and homeowners being forced out of their homes. Founded in 1973 as the Jamaica Plain Tenants Action Group, the nonprofit’s early work focused on renters, addressing divestment, neglect, and even arson-for-profit by landlords. In the decades that followed, it fought to establish rent control, to develop affordable housing, and to organize tenants in Boston apartment buildings so they could negotiate stable rents. When the foreclosure crisis hit a few years ago, City Life realized that if it was going to successfully promote housing stability in Boston’s poorest neighborhoods, it was going to have to embrace people in foreclosure as well.
That’s because research has shown that foreclosures create a ripple effect of problems, resulting in even more people losing their homes. Crime goes up in neighborhoods where lots of bank-owned houses sit empty — one study found that every one percent increase in the foreclosure rate resulted in a 2.33 percent jump in violent crime — and property values go down. As Ingrid Gould Ellen, a New York University professor of public policy and urban planning, notes, “These reductions in prices can create something of a downward spiral as reduced prices put other owners at greater risk of foreclosure, because as prices fall, owners are more likely to find themselves with underwater mortgages. Similarly, as crime increases, property values may fall, yet again putting more owners at risk.”
Steve Meacham, City Life’s wiry, silver-haired organizing coordinator, had witnessed all of this up close. He asked Griffiths if, rather than simply accept her eviction, she’d be willing to let his group blockade her home in an attempt to shame her bank, Ocwen Financial Corporation, into either reducing her principal or collecting rent from her, which would prove that she was willing to pay to stay in the home and wasn’t just looking for a free residence. She agreed, and when Constable Burton Malkofsky showed up in early 2008, he was greeted by City Life, Griffiths, her friends and neighbors, some local politicians, and the news media. After a few hours of protesting, Ocwen agreed to temporarily call off the eviction. “I couldn’t believe that a group of people were able to do what my legislators couldn’t do for me or what the courts couldn’t do for me,” Griffiths recalls.