NOTE: THIS STORY HAS BEEN CLARIFIED.
FOUR YEARS ago, Sean Lynch had a good job with U.S. Airways, moving planes and baggage at Philadelphia International, so, for the first time in his life, he was able to buy a home for his young family - a three-bedroom rowhouse on Gratz Street near 66th and Ogontz avenues, in West Oak Lane.
He signed a 30-year, $90,000 mortgage at what he thought was a fixed rate.
So in 2006, when Lynch lost the job he'd had for 10 years after being hit and disabled by a vehicle used to pull the planes, and spent several months unemployed before landing a job as a Comcast technician, his mortgage company turned his American dream of home ownership into a nightmare of impending homelessness.
"We're praying folks," Lynch said recently, remembering the low point of his life. "We prayed a lot."
His prayers were answered when one of the city's volunteer lawyers, tracking down the sheriff's list of pending foreclosures, knocked on Lynch's door, handed him a leaflet with Mayor Nutter's photo on it, told him to call the Save Your Home Philly Hotline at 215-334-HOME and promised that a nonprofit housing counselor would help him try to modify his mortgage to save his home.
"Then I got a letter from Common Pleas Court saying that foreclosures were being stopped to give homeowners and lenders some breathing room to work out a deal," Lynch said. "I remember jumping up and down, thanking God that the foreclosure was stopped."
Lynch joined the flood of endangered homeowners finding their way to a court of last resort that has already rescued hundreds of Philadelphians threatened with foreclosure. It's trying to steer more than a thousand pending cases toward the same happy ending.
On any Thursday, City Hall Courtroom 676 looks and feels more like a swap meet than a court.
Under a high, ornate ceiling, painted in palatial gold and dark red, the huge, marble-walled room, illuminated by four brilliant chandeliers, is filled with the constant buzz of deal-making, demands, counterproposals and compromise.
A grandfather clock is stuck on 6:46, the only nonmoving object of the perpetual-motion machine that is Foreclosure Prevention Court. Except for the empty judge's bench, every usable square foot of space, including the jury box, is crammed with humanity - lenders' lawyers talking with borrowers' lawyers, housing counselors talking with both, a hundred or more homeowners in danger of losing their houses waiting silently to find out their fate, their eyes filled with equal parts fear and hope. Tears are not uncommon.
While predatory lending, exploding subprime mortgages, job loss, catastrophic injury and divorce continue to separate financially strapped homeowners from their houses at alarming rates, the court's volunteer army of 200 pro bono (free) lawyers and 40 pro tem (temporary) judges works with nonprofit housing counselors and the lenders' lawyers to keep Philadelphians in their homes.
Talking, partnering or an Obama/Lincoln "team of rivals" engaged in "right-sizing" mortgage loans - whatever you want to call it, it works.
Huge Greek columns, massive enough to support an ancient temple, frame the judge's bench.
But Common Pleas Judge Annette Rizzo - part earth mother, all legal eagle - is not on the bench.
She is in her cramped robing room - really a cubicle - that sits at the foot of the grand columns. It is here, in the humblest of surroundings, that Rizzo runs her seemingly chaotic court - checking documents, answering legal questions, reassuring attorneys and housing counselors, trying, trying, trying to get the deal done.
The current climate that finds lenders and borrowers sharing the same leaky lifeboat on the treacherous seas of financial instability has had a calming effect on their formerly adversarial relationship, Rizzo said.
"Some days, it's a hug fest in here," she said. "I just had one woman in here who was so scared of losing her home, she was shaking. I saw the lender's lawyer reach out and hold her hand, telling her, 'Don't panic. We're going to work it out.' That just wasn't happening before."
Rizzo, who'd been working to create a foreclosure-prevention court since 2004 before finally seeing her dream realized in June, is both exhilarated and exhausted by the burden of managing her Thursdays in 676 while carrying her normal case calendar in civil court.
"It's draining, but this works because there is a microfocus on each case," she said, maintaining that microfocus on the interview while being interrupted repeatedly by the nitty gritty of foreclosure prevention.
"There is hand-to-hand outreach to each client here," Rizzo said. "There is individual caretaking here. The lender lawyers get to know the homeowners as people here. We put a human face on this and they embrace it. So as I work the room, I feel a humanism here on both sides. If necessary, our volunteer lawyers pick up clients and bring them here. Housing counselors make house calls. Our mission is to save lives, one address at a time."
Because of the incredible volunteer response by hundreds of Philadelphia lawyers, Rizzo said, the foreclosure-prevention program is costing the cash-poor city nothing. (The city does fund the program's hotline, door-to-door outreach and housing counselors.)
"We've stretched our court's staff to the max, so this adds zero to the city's bottom line," she said. "Hey, there was a big reception I went to last night. There were leftovers. I took the food and brought it here. Everything helps.
"I am so proud of all of our volunteers who are giving so much of their time, just trying to keep people in their homes," she said. "It's overwhelming, but it works."
It works so well, Rizzo said, that Philadelphia is serving as the model for foreclosure-prevention programs in Boston, Pittsburgh, Cook County (Illinois), Prince George's County (Maryland), Louisville and the entire state of New Jersey. Courtroom 676 has a steady stream of observers from across the country, searching for a way to stem the tidal wave of foreclosures.
"We, as a court, have a fundamental need to move quickly," Rizzo said. "There is a mandate to get all the players to the table right away because there isn't much time."
That was certainly true for Lynch, whose injury led to the loss of his U.S. Airways job, which led to his falling behind in his mortgage payments, which led to the threat of foreclosure.
"When I told the mortgage company that I had lost my job and tried to work out an arrangement with them, their arrangement was that my mortgage ended up almost doubled," Lynch said. "It went from just over $700 a month to almost $1,300."
That included an adjustable rate hike and the arrears that built up while Lynch was out of work for several months.
"They told me that I either pay or they come and take the house," Lynch said. "To stay in our home, we agreed to pay."
His wife, Love, was working, and his mother-in-law was able to help out financially, even though she was taking care of her elderly mother.
"For about six months, we barely managed," Lynch said, "but it was like putting a drop of water on a forest fire. Then, the bottom just fell out."
By March 2007, even though Lynch had found his new job at Comcast, the monthly mortgage payment was beyond his means and the lender was threatening foreclosure. Months behind in his payments, Lynch did not know how he was going to prevent himself and his wife and their very young children, Eyan and Liann, from being forced out of their home.
In desperation, he paid money that he could not afford to one of the many companies that prey on families in the Lynches' situation.
"They were supposed to work out a deal to get the loan restructured on my behalf," Lynch said. "They did nothing. I got swindled. And my foreclosure date was still coming: July 2008. We prayed. My stress level was through the roof."
That's when the volunteer attorneys knocked on his door and brought him to Judge Rizzo's court. His foreclosure sale was rescheduled for October to give borrower and lender time to prepare for the mandatory reconciliation hearing.
Two weeks before the October foreclosure, Lynch and the housing counselor he had found through the hotline - Diane Gaffney, from Consumer Credit Counseling Service - met with the lender in Courtroom 676, presented a detailed budget and a payment plan, and were able to modify Lynch's loan into a 30-year, fixed rate, affordable mortgage, and save his home.
"I just broke down, thanking God," Lynch said. "Without this court, we would have been homeless."