Communities across the country are struggling with the fallout of the foreclosure crisis. While President Obama has announced a major program to help families facing foreclosure, implementation has been slow, and Congress has failed to enact bankruptcy protections that would have facilitated more mortgage modifications.
With limited federal solutions, mayors across the country are considering innovative measures to address the problem in their local communities. Mayors did not cause this crisis, but they are stepping up to solve it.
Many local governments are turning to the Philadelphia model of mandatory mediation, which to date has helped 78 percent of its participants avoid foreclosure simply by having borrowers and lenders sit down and talk. The program succeeds where others have fallen short because of its mandatory nature, extensive community outreach, accessibility, housing counselors, fair valuation methods, and support from local allies such as Community Legal Services, the Philadelphia Unemployment Project, and Mayor Nutter's office.
The program uses city funds along with money raised from the private sector, but it needs more help, including from the federal government.
In a February speech, Obama promised that kind of help, saying: "We are going to award $2 billion in competitive grants to communities that are bringing together stakeholders and testing new and innovative ways to prevent foreclosures. Communities have shown a lot of initiative, taking responsibility for this crisis when many others have not. Supporting these neighborhood efforts is exactly what we should be doing."
Unfortunately, the Neighborhood Stabilization Program Obama was referring to doesn't permit the use of funds for community foreclosure-prevention programs, even though they are more cost-effective and socially desirable than purchasing and rehabilitating homes that have already been foreclosed. The Senate recently passed an amendment by Sens. Bob Casey (D., Pa.) and Kirsten Gillibrand (D., N.Y.) that would have allowed the funds to be used for foreclosure prevention. Sadly, the House killed it.
Even if Congress is unwilling to lend a hand, though, mayors are stepping up to help families in their communities. The mayors of Philadelphia, New York, Los Angeles, Miami, St. Louis, and many other cities have joined with ACORN (the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now) to explore establishing additional mediation programs or strengthening existing ones. Last week, I joined Nutter and several other mayors in a national conference call to urge states to pass laws requiring pre-foreclosure settlement conferences.
Housing counselors across the country are waging valiant daily battles for reasonable loan modifications. But lenders are still foreclosing unnecessarily on hundreds of thousands of homes because of a lack of sufficient mediation. Efforts to facilitate more loan modifications will be critical in halting the national housing and economic downturn.
With millions more foreclosures coming our way, including a huge wave of adjustable-rate-mortgage resets in 2010 and 2011, we have no time to waste. We need sensible local solutions that will improve our communities, safeguard families, stabilize tax bases, and revive the economy.