The John A. Wilson Building in Washington, D.C.
The John A. Wilson Building. Credit: Darrow Montgomery/FILE

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Loose Lips will admit, he was a bit of a procrastinator back in school, waiting until the last possible minute to turn in any big assignment. So that means the D.C. government’s feet dragging in its efforts to help struggling homeowners sure feels familiar.

Since January, D.C.’s Department of Housing and Community Development has been sitting on $50 million in federal funding to help prevent foreclosures. The agency has known all along that the city’s pandemic-inspired moratorium on foreclosures expires on June 30. Yet it only launched efforts to distribute that money in earnest on June 22, perhaps necessitating a last-minute legislative intervention to give everyone involved in the process a bit more breathing room.

Ward 4 Councilmember Janeese Lewis George is backing a bill Tuesday alongside Chairman Phil Mendelson that would give homeowners until Sept. 30 to apply for this money (bumping back the previous Aug. 30 deadline) and protecting them from foreclosure while their application is processed. But it is a distinctly unenviable position for the city to find itself in, considering that housing advocates have been warning for weeks now of the impending foreclosure cliff. Lewis George noted in a memo introducing the legislation that D.C. is one of the last five jurisdictions in the country to hand out these federal funds, which could have been helping people pay off their mortgages or condo association fees months ago.

“Our guiding principle remains that no homeowner who is eligible for the DC Homeowner Assistance Fund should be foreclosed upon when there is money designated and available to save their homes,” Shirley Horng, a senior staff attorney at the Legal Aid Society of D.C., tells LL. “Homeowners shouldn’t bear the consequences of the delay in opening HAF, and unfortunately, that is precisely the result we fear with such a short ramp up period.”

DHCD Interim Director Drew Hubbard shares that sense of urgency, but he doubts the results of this wait will be as dire as Horng describes. He notes that the existing moratorium already protects people from foreclosure if they’ve applied for HAF money through Sept. 30, even if the Council doesn’t act. And he hopes that the city has already done a decent job of raising awareness about the program, via a pilot that already put $500,000 into the hands of homeowners east of the Anacostia River and other outreach efforts.

“We’re going to do paid advertisements, we’re going to run the whole gamut of trying to get the word out,” Hubbard says.

But Horng and her colleagues believe that isn’t enough time, and it would be far better to protect homeowners from foreclosure for the duration of their application process (as the new bill would do). That way, people won’t face additional attorneys’ fees that lenders tend to tack on the moment they’ve initiated foreclosure proceedings.

The legislation would still allow lenders and condo associations to send notices of future foreclosure actions on July 1, but that notice would have to include instructions on how to apply for the HAF cash.

Legal Aid estimates that only a small portion of the roughly 9,000 homeowners at risk of losing their properties actually know about the program, so attorneys there believe that sort of intervention makes sense. Plus they say it will take some effort to gather all the documentation necessary to actually get this money, so it’s better to give people as much time as possible to prepare without the threat of foreclosure hanging over their heads.

“This has the potential to be impactful and reach a lot of homeowners, and really stem the tide of displacement D.C. is experiencing,” says Jenny Joseph, a supervising attorney at Legal Aid. “But there does need to be enough time for it to actually work.”

If displacement is such a concern, why let the moratorium expire at all if so many people are still struggling? This federal money is going directly to mortgage servicers (in most cases, big banks that aren’t exactly hurting for cash) and LL imagines they can be patient.

Hubbard and the housing advocates agree, however, that the bigger concern is getting the money to condo associations, which may be made up of older homeowners without a ton of extra income. They may not be able to hold off on foreclosures in quite the same way.

In fact, Hubbard says tracking down information for a constellation of condo groups is part of what proved so challenging about launching the program in the first place. He says even the largest banks in the country have turned over mortgages to “sub-providers,” so “trying to figure out where those loans actually are” was difficult.

But Hubbard says the department has since gotten funding in the new budget for more staff to accelerate its efforts to track down those loans. The new hires should be able to help homeowners with the application process as well.

Housing advocates sincerely wish DHCD had gotten going on this process sooner. Joanne Savage, an attorney with the Legal Counsel for the Elderly’s D.C. chapter, argues that DHCD should’ve started accepting applications to get homeowners involved and aware of this relief money first, and then figured out how to reach lenders after that. LL’s cynical side might note that Mayor Muriel Bowser frequently refers to her ability to get “money out the door” as evidence of her competency (and made it a big part of her successful re-election pitch). But what’s done is done.

The Council will now have to decide if it’s willing to give this whole process more time to play out. Considering the rocky rollout of another pot of money meant to prevent evictions ahead of the expiration of a separate moratorium, a little leniency doesn’t seem like such a bad idea.

“Homeowners hit with foreclosure notices are extremely vulnerable to scammers,” Savage says. “Sometimes they’re able to scare them into a quick sale, or just end up outright stealing the home. Folks need to know help is on the way.”