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Boston Takes Aggressive Approach To Foreclosure Crisis

By Monica Brady-Myerov (WBUR)

Hendry Street in Dorchester is ground zero for the foreclosure crisis in Boston. Here, a boarded-up house awaits renovation. (WBUR)
Hendry Street in Dorchester is ground zero for the foreclosure crisis in Boston. Here, a boarded-up house awaits renovation. (WBUR)

In 2008, Boston had 1,215 foreclosed properties, but it was not a record-setting number, as other cities have experienced. The city has managed to keep on top of the foreclosure crisis, in part with prevention strategies. The city's aggressive approach has resulted in the city having fewer foreclosed properties than other major metropolitan cities.

One solution to Boston's foreclosure crisis is on Hendry Street. This dead-end street off Bowdoin Street in Dorchester is ground zero for the battle against foreclosures, according to Pat Canavan, the mayor's housing advisor, who walks into a house that's being remodeled.

PAT CANAVAN: This is 17 Hendry Street. We're going into this house which had been foreclosed so it was vacant -- one of several that was vacant and boarded up. The city bought it after negotiating with the servicer and then we packaged this with a few other properties and sold them to Built-Rite Construction for the cost we paid for them, which was about $23,000 a unit.

The construction company will likely sell them for significantly more after they rehabilitate them and put them on the market next month. A year ago, 16 units in more than four houses on Hendry Street were boarded up. Now there are three. Earlier this week, Mayor Tom Menino toured one of the condos.

MAYOR MENINO: It looks better much better than the last time I was here — what did it look like last time? A little ramshamble, walls falling apart, ceiling was falling and dirty. Now we've seen a lot of work done in the last several months.

The project is part of the Foreclosure Intervention Team, which the mayor created last year to focus on streets or neighborhood blocks with high numbers of abandoned properties in Hyde Park, Mattapan, Dorchester and Roxbury. The intervention team brings in police to deter crime, improves the street, lighting and public spaces and supports homeowners who want to make repairs. Again, housing advisor Pat Canavan.

CANAVAN: The mayor has directed us to look to where we can eradicate blight caused by foreclosed properties, so that gets us into a strategy that sometimes seems very retail because it's street by street, but that's how this crisis is working out. It is street by street.

Housing advocates who stage foreclosure eviction sit-ins and weekly protests in front of banks say the city's approach to preventing foreclosures and rehabilitating blight is a strong effort in a difficult environment.

Boston has 966 foreclosed properties, that's comparatively smaller than other metro areas. Cleveland, Ohio, has 10,000; Washington, DC, has 2,400 and Baltimore has 1,500. The reasons why Boston is faring better are two-fold. First the economy hasn't sunk as far, as fast, here as in other cities. And second, Boston saw the problem coming, says Canavan.

CANAVAN: Because for many years we had an aggressive program to encourage buyers to go after good loans and to deal with only reputable lenders, we are seeing fewer forecloses than some of the other cities.

But many people did sign bad loans, so the city is also funding programs to save homes from foreclosure. Since 2006, more than 450 properties have averted it, lowering the city's foreclosure rate by 20 percent. Housing groups, such as ABCD Mattapan Family Service Center, receive city funding specifically for foreclosure counselors. Lillie Searcy is the executive director.

LILLIE SEARCY: The city of Boston has been extremely proactive in trying to do more prevention -- helping homeowners to plan in advance so that if you know you are at risk of losing your home you spend more time working with the lenders and helping to prevent so that they don't lose their home.

And if city officials were unable to prevent someone from getting into a bad loan and then a foreclosure, they are working on reoccupying foreclosed homes such as those on Hendry Street. Evelyn Friedman, director of the city's Department of Neighborhood Development, says they are doing that by not permitting new housing developments.

EVELYN FRIEDMAN: Because there's no point. I mean we have so many properties in the neighborhood, why build new when we have plenty of properties that we can get people to buy?

Friedman says the city is offering incentives of $25,000 for the down payment and $50,000 for rehabilitation on foreclosed properties. It's this multi-faceted approach that city officials and housing advocates hope will help Boston continue to manage the foreclosure crisis.

This program aired on March 11, 2009. The audio for this program is not available.

Monica Brady-Myerov Twitter Reporter
Monica Brady-Myerov was formerly a report in WBUR's newsroom.

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