Theoretically, D.C. wants to keep longtime Black residents in their homes and ward off the lingering financial consequences of the pandemic. Mayor Muriel Bowser even set up a special “strike force” with such a goal in mind, championing it as a hybrid public-private effort to preserve and expand Black homeownership in the city.
So housing advocates are bewildered that District leaders are once again on the precipice of allowing thousands of foreclosures to proceed, even though the city still hasn’t finished distributing $50 million in federal funds to avert them. This eminently preventable crisis in D.C.’s housing market will likely fall hardest on the very homeowners the government has publicly committed to helping, they warn.
The D.C. Council tried to stave off such an outcome in June, passing a bill to protect Homeowner Assistance Fund applicants from foreclosure if they filed necessary documents by Sept. 30. But lawmakers don’t seem inclined to introduce another extension, even though activists working with homeowners still see a tremendous need among their clients. As things stand now, even if you submit your HAF papers on Saturday and expect to get your bills paid, your lender or condo association could come after your house in the meantime.
“We’re still regularly seeing homeowners who have no idea this fund exists until we tell them about it,” Shirley Horng, a senior staff attorney at the Legal Aid Society of D.C., tells Loose Lips. “We recently saw two attorneys who just learned about it via a judge informing them in open court … New protections for people going through the HAF process are the only way we’re going to prevent needless foreclosures.”
Horng and her colleagues aren’t asking for the revival of a full moratorium on foreclosures, as the appetite for such robust pandemic protections pretty much disappeared last year. They just want the Council to remove any sort of deadline since the rollout of this program has been painfully slow. In fact, Horng says, officials at the Department of Housing and Community Development (which is administering the fund) told her they expect to spend the next five years spending down the money, so it makes little sense to punish people for the government’s delays.
The problem is that the Council will have to act to change these foreclosure rules, and no lawmakers have volunteered to back a bill on the matter, even though the last legislation on the subject passed unanimously. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson and Ward 4 Councilmember Janeese Lewis George teamed up on that bill in June, but neither one looks likely to tackle the issue again—a spokesman for Lewis George says they’ve “had a couple conversations” with advocates, but “we’re not planning to move anything at this point.” A spokeswoman for Mendelson says he hasn’t been involved in the issue, and deferred to Lewis George’s team.
Still, Damon King, Legal Aid’s director of policy advocacy, says he hasn’t given up hope completely after some “encouraging” conversations with lawmakers. King is optimistic that the Council will take up the issue at its next meeting on Oct. 4, though he couldn’t point LL to any other councilmembers who might come around to their arguments.
King and Horng hope lawmakers will be swayed by the numbers. DHCD has yet to release much data on the program publicly (and a spokesperson didn’t respond to LL’s questions) but Legal Aid has gotten its hands on some figures: Between the program’s opening on June 22 and Sept. 5, 960 people completed HAF applications and another 2,600 have started the process but not yet finished. Based on Census data, Horng estimates there are more than 5,000 households behind on mortgage payments, so there are many people the program has yet to reach.
Horng credits DHCD for setting up a “relatively straightforward” application portal for the HAF money, but notes that any request for financial assistance is going to be “inherently complicated and difficult,” as evidenced by the large number of people who have started the process but not finished. She adds that the portal operates exclusively online, a potential barrier for seniors and lower income people.
DHCD could have combatted those problems with a robust outreach campaign (and Interim Director Drew Hubbard pledged that the department would “run the gamut” with its communication efforts in a prior interview with LL) but Horng says the agency’s lackluster results on that front have disappointed her. The most effective tool for spreading awareness has actually been the notice about the HAF money that lenders are required to send to anyone in debt before initiating foreclosure proceedings—and the law only requires mortgage servicers to send that notice through Sept. 30, Horng says.
“That notice wasn’t even developed and available until after Aug. 15, so people have only really been getting those for a few weeks,” says Joanne Savage, an attorney with the Legal Counsel for the Elderly’s D.C. chapter and a member of Bowser’s home ownership strike force.
Savage suspects that many condo associations aren’t even willing to expend the effort to send out those notices and will just wait to start foreclosing on homeowners when the Sept. 30 deadline passes.
Horng is sympathetic to the plight of those associations, many of which aren’t able to withstand a drop in mortgage payments in the same way as big banks or other lenders, but she expects this HAF money is a much healthier solution for them than a slew of foreclosures. The federal money can pay off all the mortgage payments a borrower owes and even some future bills, while the foreclosure process limits how much money the association can recover, she notes. Plus, a foreclosure can drop property values and make it even easier for outside investors to scoop up these homes.
“That just leads to more of the displacement we’ve been seeing in the city for years,” Horng says.
It’s exactly the sort of displacement, in fact, that Bowser’s strike force aims to prevent. The group adopted recommendations that the city “should create a program that aids Black homeowners who have experienced and are at risk of foreclosure due to their inability to pay their mortgage and related housing fees,” specifically citing the HAF as a model. If the city is actually serious about such a goal, Savage says it need not wait to get started.
“We won’t be able to meet our goal of increasing the overall rate of Black homeownership without preserving current homeowners,” Savage says. “We can do this right now.”