‘No One Leaves’ Keeping People Put

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Vicki E. Yeh

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In a three-level house, a pregnant woman with two young children shares her home with mice scurrying through the rooms. Some of the other tenants in her neighborhood have lost running water and heat when their landlords failed to make mortgage payments and the banks seized ownership of the properties, and they wonder what will happen to them.

When a broker from the bank offers her and her neighbors up to $3,000 each in exchange for the keys to their homes and an agreement to leave shortly thereafter, it seems like the best possible deal for both parties.

But when Nicholas J. Hartigan and David E. Haller ’03, third-year students at Harvard Law School, drive through the poorest neighborhoods of Boston, marked with swaths of abandoned triple-decker houses, they believe that “cash for keys” is only the best solution for the banks—not for the tenants or the community.

Instead, they want these tenants simply to stay put, take their cases to court, and force the banks to navigate the entire legal process of eviction.

Working at the Harvard Legal Aid Bureau, Hartigan and Haller have long represented tenants against banks, but when they realized less than half of foreclosure cases reached the courts, they knew they needed to go out and find the missing tenants.

Along with Anthony B. Borich, a third-year Law School student, they started No One Leaves, an organization of individuals who canvass different zones of Boston. Each week this fall, they and an army of volunteers, including some College students, have been visiting foreclosed homes, knocking on doors, and telling residents to stay put.

For their part, banks prefer to sell empty properties instead of occupied ones.

“By getting the keys and having access to the house, we can ensure the property is secured,” wrote Kevin M. Waetke, a spokesperson from Wells Fargo in an e-mailed statement. “Additionally, we can quickly get the house on the market once the owner has left.”

But vacant homes tend to blight the neighborhood as they are ransacked for anything of value, Hartigan and Haller say, including the copper in the water pipes. Eventually, some of these homes must be destroyed and rebuilt.

“There’s no one who’s against keeping these homes occupied, and yet banks don’t seem to be doing that,” Hartigan says.

NO ONE LEAVES

Armed with a list of several dozen homes listed for foreclosure, Hartigan drives into Dorchester. Following his GPS, he passes a street lined on both sides with three-level houses. All of these, he says, are occupied by tenants, frequently with the landlord living on the first floor.

The downturn in real estate prices over the past year has hardly helped the owners of these rental units. According to Patricia A. Whiting, a clinical instructor affiliated with the Legal Aid Bureau, foreclosure evictions have spiked over the past months, after a 90-day waiting-period law on all foreclosures expired in August.

Each week, roughly 20 to 25 cases reach Boston Housing Court, but the number of foreclosed properties is far greater, Whiting says. In contrast, prior to the bursting of the real estate bubble, so few eviction cases reached the court system that the litigation gap “wasn’t even on the radar,” Whiting says.

The first stop resembles all the other houses in the neighborhood, sitting behind a chain-link fence. Hartigan bounds up the porch steps, past a worn green armchair, and knocks on the door.

It opens slowly, revealing a bare-footed woman whose loose orange dress glows in the dim entryway. After Hartigan launches into his introduction, she tells him that she is, in fact, a tenant.

She gives him her name, Ingrid Gokool, and shakes her head with a mix of indignation and worry.

“Just this past Friday, my landlord just took off and gone,” says Gokool, an immigrant from Trinidad who says she has lived in the house for over four years with her husband and 10-year-old son. “This crazy man told me the house is up for sale, but he made sure he got rent for this month.”

Hartigan reassures her that she no longer needs to pay rent to the landlord, then tells her to attend meetings for City Life/Vida Urbana, a community group of staffers who will guide her on the path toward legal representation. As he leaves, Gokool smiles faintly before closing her door.

“The idea is to give these people a heads-up before those damn cash-for-keys people get there,” Hartigan says later in the car. He is pleased by the way the conversation turned out and most importantly, by the fact that Gokool had not yet left the house.

The bank that has seized the property must now go through the full eviction process. According to Hartigan and Haller, every tenant can expect a much larger payment through this process while staying in his or her home without paying rent.

But a combination of living conditions, uncertainty, and the breakdown of the neighborhood conspires against his argument. One blue triple-decker Hartigan visits next used to house six families, but the woman who answers the door says that after she moves out, there will be only one left.

“Sometimes, we get there too late,” Hartigan says.

CULTURE OF DISTRUST

The first house is the easiest. At one, a woman refuses to open the door for several minutes, instead shouting at Hartigan through a window.

At another house, the sound of the doorbell is met by silence—until the door flies open with a bang. Even after Hartigan sees the young girl standing behind the door, he is visibly startled.

He says he understands tenants’ skepticism and reluctance to open their doors. Dorchester is known for having one of the highest crime rates in Boston, as well as being one of the poorest sections of the city.

And in a neighborhood populated heavily by minorities, Hartigan—a Virginia native and a star football player at Brown who nearly played with the New York Jets—sticks out.

“People see this random white kid knocking on doors,” he says, “and they know you’re most likely not from around here.”

Before and during a foreclosure, a constant stream of people “not from around here” trickles through the neighborhood. Many of them bearing bad or contradictory news.

When he tells the residents that he comes from an organization dedicated to helping people in the same predicament as them, most are willing to listen. But at the mention of the word “lawyer,” some bristle with caution again.

One of the organization’s most powerful methods of allaying fears is the red T-shirt that the canvassers wear. On a chilly November day, as the sky rapidly darkens, Hartigan knocks on doors wearing nothing over it.

“The shirt’s really important—it gives you legitimacy, especially when you have a group of people,” he says. “It’s saying, ‘Even though I’m a white kid, I’m not here to screw you.’”

But he also says, “I’m not going to lie—it’s freezing outside.”

THE LAW ON THEIR SIDE

As members of the Legal Aid Bureau, Hartigan and Haller act as legal counsel to many tenants of foreclosed properties, sometimes winning settlements that represent a significant percentage of the property’s original price.

Haller—who recently represented a tenant who lost heat, water, and access to his home after the bank changed the lock on the door—says that juries tend to be sympathetic to his clients. In this case, he was awarded over $50,000 for emotional distress and for the diminution of value of the property, and Haller says that there is a “good possibility” that sum will be doubled or tripled.

“You can imagine—the Bank of New York versus this poor black man in Dorchester earning $700 a month in Social Security,” he says. “He didn’t even know the property foreclosed, he’s not the most sophisticated of people, and he’s living in a bedroom of a house just trying to get by.”

He says he finds the tenants “morally blameless” and even somewhat empathizes with “little landlords” who were unable to make mortgage payments. The banks, however, are a different story.

“If you get a good lawyer, you can whack a landlord for a good amount of money,” Haller says. “But I feel bad whacking people, I don’t feel so bad hitting the bank.”

Hartigan says that he began his work as an effort to force banks to change the way they process foreclosures, but the motivations for fighting a faceless institution and assisting clients with faces, families, and frustrations are different.

Explaining his personal investment in his cases, he mentions a client who used her settlement money to study to become a pharmacist overseas. Money, Hartigan says, can change lives quickly and visibly—even as the changes in bank policies can seem grating and slow.

Hartigan wolfs down a ham sandwich as he drives, having skipped lunch in the course of a day’s work.

“It’s an exhausting effort that we’re putting in, but I think everybody feels very strongly about it,” he says. “You can legitimately change people’s lives, and take a really bad situation and do something that can really be beneficial.”

—Staff writer Athena Y. Jiang can be reached at ajiang@fas.harvard.edu.