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American Today


In the Community

Law Students Lend a Hand, Save Homes

By Megan N. Smith

Student volunteers from the Washington College of Law

Students Christine Lonergan and Ashly Hinmon prepare for a Nov. 5 outreach visit.

It’s a sunny and warm Saturday in November.

Although memo deadlines are approaching and the end of the semester is on the horizon, ten Washington College of Law students have put down their books for the morning. Armed with a GPS, the students pile into cars, and head across the D.C. line.

These students are members of the Take Back Your Home (TBYH) Project, a group dedicated to educating Maryland residents about their options and legal rights when facing foreclosure. On this day, TBYH is bound for Prince George’s County, an area hit particularly hard by the decade’s economic challenges.

“There is a huge need in this area for the kind of outreach we do,” explained Ashly Hinmon, 3L Public Interest Public Service (PIPS) Scholar and co-leader of the TBYH Project at Washington College of Law.

According to recent statistics released in September 2011, 1 in 805 homes in Prince George’s County faced foreclosure actions last year, compared to 1 in 10,967 homes in neighboring D.C.

Every other weekend the TBYH volunteers venture out in pairs into Prince George’s as part of their fall outreach. Each pair is given a list of 7 to 12 addresses to visit during the day, provided by the Public Justice Center, a non-profit legal organization that functions as a parent organization for TBYH. The list is comprised of homeowners who have recently been given a Notice of Intent to Foreclose. In Maryland, this information is accessible through public court records.

This Saturday, Hinmon is paired with Christine Lonergan, a 1L and first time outreach volunteer.

Prior to law school, Lonergan worked with a non-profit coalition that represented low-income Detroit residents going through eviction and foreclosure.

“Foreclosure is a scary process, and I don’t think people have all of the information they need,” she said. “Having a friendly, helpful person provide you with accurate information can jumpstart the process of turning around someone’s situation.”

Hitting the Pavement

After donning a red TBYH hat, Hinmon and Lonergan visited each address on the list. The homes ranged from already-abandoned condos with overgrown landscaping, to two-story houses with pristine lawns.

For Hinmon, each interaction with a homeowner is unique.

“We try to give each homeowner all of the information they need to save their home,” she said.

Although student volunteers cannot provide the homeowners and tenants with legal advice, they are well-versed in describing the options available for each situation.

According to Hinmon, many residents are unaware that Maryland law gives them between 25 and 55 days to request mediation from the time they are notified of foreclosure, that free or low-cost attorneys are often able to attend mediation with the bank involved, and free government certified housing agencies are also available to provide advice and direction. TBYH volunteers always stress the importance of calling housing counselors immediately within this window of time.

TBYH volunteers also warn residents of scam artists who guarantee that they can stop a foreclosure or modify a loan in return for payment, and they also provide materials in Spanish.

“All bank mailings are in English, and often the request for mediation is buried in the bank’s document…It’s really frustrating,” explained Hinmon.

Hinmon has worked with many Spanish speaking families during outreach. She recalled one household that had paid nearly $3,000 to scammers who had promised to resolve the family’s foreclosure situation. Prior to the arrival of TBYH volunteers, the family was unsure where to seek legitimate help.

“It made me feel extremely happy and rewarded. They had been trying to find help,” Hinmon said. “This let the family know that people are concerned about what is happening to them.”

"It's not that unusual for homes to be already empty."

Many of the residences Hinmon and Lonergan visited were already for sale, or uninhabited with foreclosure notices taped to the door. In this case, TBYH volunteers leave factsheets for the homeowner in the event that they return to the property.

Susan Bennett, professor and director of the Community and Economic Development Law Clinic at Washington College of Law, is also a TBYH volunteer. She says the mediation program is underused by Maryland borrowers.

“It is heartbreaking. One weekend we stopped by ten homes and we managed to talk to two sets of residents. It’s not that unusual for homes to be already empty. You often see the packets of foreclosure information taped to people’s storm doors. You have to dig deep in those packets to find the actual form to even opt-in to going through the mediation system.”

On that particular Saturday, Hinmon, Lonergan, and the other eight TBYH volunteers visited 46 homes.  Those residents that answered the door seemed grateful for the information. One man, when hearing of the possibility of getting a free attorney for mediation, said he was “definitely going to make the call.”

“Even if we’re only able to talk to a few people each trip, it is worth it,” said Hinmon.

"We’re students, wearing jeans, and not driving the nicest cars—but we just want to help."

Since the project started one year ago, the group has covered a lot of ground—visiting just under 300 homes. The TBYH leadership is always trying to determine a more efficient way for reaching more people.

According to Hinmon, there is currently no way to track the effectiveness of TBYH outreach efforts, specifically whether mediation is successful, or if banks are negotiating in good faith. Despite these challenges, she said she appreciates the opportunity to put her legal knowledge to work.

“We’re still working on it,” said Hinmon of the Project. “But, a lot of law students have expressed that you don’t often get this kind of opportunity to interact with clients.”

“I think the philosophy is that there is nothing quite like the door-to-door encounter to provide information when people need it,” added Professor Bennett. “Although, it would be nice if there were a way to get ahold of people before foreclosure so they could get prepped and get ready.”

TBYH is always looking for volunteers for outreach and project coordination. According to Hinmon, it is not necessary to have a lot of housing or foreclosure law expertise to be good at outreach.

“I will definitely do this again,” said Lonergan after her first outreach trip was complete.

“We’re students, wearing jeans, and not driving the nicest cars—but we just want to help,” described Hinmon. “The information we provide ensures that these individuals can weigh the pros and cons of their situation and make the decision that is best for them. Hopefully they can save their homes.”