Archdiocese backs bill to ease foreclosure crisis

BRAINTREE -- A bill on Beacon Hill that would soften the impact of foreclosures on owners, tenants, and municipalities is being championed by agencies of the Catholic Church in Massachusetts.

The Massachusetts Catholic Conference, the public policy arm of the state's Catholic bishops and the Archdiocese of Boston's Planning Office for Urban Affairs (POUA), which develops affordable housing for people of modest means and works for neighborhood revitalization, are jointly pushing state lawmakers to pass a proposed foreclosure bill.

"We see families as the foundations of communities," said POUA president Lisa Alberghini. "If families don't have sound places to live, that puts families at risk and therefore communities are at risk. We look at this foreclosure legislation as supporting healthy families.

MCC Executive Director Ed Saunders said that the proposed legislation could, "ease the foreclosure crisis"

"It's a crisis stage if people are losing their homes," Saunders said.

The proposed legislation would provide protection for tenants whose landlords face foreclosure and could lengthen the time for which lenders must wait to foreclose on a house. The legislation would also provide increased consumer protection, require lenders to maintain vacant foreclosed properties, and exempt charitable organizations from paying property taxes on affordable housing.

The Senate unanimously passed its version, S-2407, An Act to Stabilize Neighborhoods. A nearly identical version, H-4595, is being considered by the House of Representatives' Ways and Means Committee. Sponsoring the House legislation is Rep. Kevin Honan (D-Brighton), chairman of the Joint Committee on Housing.

The bill likely has a July 31 deadline for passage by the entire House of Representatives since that is the last day both branches meet formally. Saunders said the bill could still be passed after July 31 when both branches hold informal meetings.

Saunders said that the Legislature is currently dealing with other matters such as expanded legalized gambling, but said the current economic recession is raising the need for the foreclosure measure.

"I don't see this as controversial in nature," Saunders said. "If it doesn't get moved by July 31 it's not the end of it."

"If we did not have the economic recession, you may not have this bill," Saunders added.

Under the new law, tenants in good standing would be allowed to remain in their homes if the landlord faces foreclosure. In such circumstances, Saunders said he anticipates tenants would pay rent to the mortgage holder.

"It slows the process down so they have time to make an adjustment," Saunders said. "Under current law, there is no protection for tenants."

Alberghini said she wants tenants to remain in their homes while banks negotiate with landlords.

The MCC and the POUA say the bill will also protect homeowners by establishing a new voluntary process for mediation and loan modification. Lenders who opt out of this mediation process will have to wait 150 days to foreclose on the property, whereas current law allows foreclosure after 90 days. However, the 90-day period remains in force for lenders who participate in this new mediation process.

"If you don't enter into mediation, it's a time disadvantage for the lender," Saunders said.

The bill also would require lenders to provide a statement of rights to homeowners experiencing foreclosure, criminally punish fraudulent lenders, and require lenders to develop new consumer education and counseling programs for those considering reverse mortgages.

"Individuals who take advantage of reverse mortgages are those who are approaching retirement or the elderly," Saunders said. "A lot of lenders aren't totally upfront with that and they tend to take advantage of someone who is elderly."

The bill is also said to help cities and towns because it would allow municipalities to create a registry of abandoned properties and force lenders to maintain abandoned properties. It would also allow them to exempt charitable organizations from property taxes on affordable housing they provide. The tax exemption would span seven years from the date of purchase.

Alberghini spoke favorably about the exemption provision of the legislation.

"It does provide an opportunity for non-profits to access the housing resources," Alberghini said. "It's the kind of thing we and other non-profits can use to help families get back on their feet."

For Saunders, the bill has one main goal.

"Ultimately, the goal is to ease the sting of foreclosures and prevent homelessness," Saunders said.