When Sandra Douglas, 60, received a letter on her door saying that the Boston house she had been renting for 25 years had been foreclosed on and that she had to vacate the premises immediately, she had no idea what to do.
"I was confused and scared," she told HuffPost. "I felt like I was gonna die. You hear about eviction, and you think, 'Are all my things gonna be on the street in the morning?' I had never been through this before. I'm just a renter."
Douglas said a friend directed her toward City Life, a grassroots community organization in Boston that meets every Tuesday to inform foreclosure victims of their rights and direct them to free legal help. Through City Life and Harvard Legal Aid Bureau, Douglas learned that she didn't have to actually leave her house until a judge mandated that she do so and that she should never accept an offer of "cash for keys" from any bank trying to push her as quickly as possible out of her house.
"The first time I went to the City Life meeting, I didn't have any words to say. I was so quiet because I didn't know what was gonna happen," she said. "City Life gave me some encouraging words, told me what to do, helped me to be strong and get my voice back."
The solution that City Life offered Douglas to stay in her house was simple: She should apply for a loan, buy back the foreclosed house she had been living in for 25 years at its real value, and then rent it out to her former landlord while they both continue to live in it.
"She has nowhere to go," Douglas said. "She's owned the place for 26 years."
Steve Meacham, the coordinator of organizing for City Life, said the organization has helped many people to stay in their homes after foreclosure, but this is the first time he has ever seen a tenant and a landlord swap roles like this.
"Sandra and the former owner have been together 25 years as tenant and landlord," he told HuffPost. "The former owner was not able to get qualified for a loan, so Sandra applied. It's a great example of tenants and homeowners working together to keep control of their homes."
In addition hosting to community meetings on Tuesdays, Meacham said City Life works closely with a student organization called "No One Leaves" at Harvard and Suffolk Law schools to knock on doors in different zones in Boston every Saturday and inform foreclosure victims of their rights.
"A lot of times the brokers will go door to door and tell people they need to leave their houses," said Marielle Macher, a third-year student at Harvard Law and president of No One Leaves. "We tell people there's a legal process, and they can't be forced to leave until that process is through. Unfortunately, a lot of the tenants are not even aware that a foreclosure has occurred, and we aim to be the first people to tell them so we can get there before the bank does and explain what their rights are."
Organizations like City Life and No One Leaves are vital, Meacham said, because banks can be deceptive in "a whole host of ways, from the time people first buy their homes right through to eviction."
"The banks are refusing to negotiate with people until the eviction takes place and refusing to sell a house back to a former owner at its real value, because they look at it as a moral hazard thing," he said. "They want to punish people for defaulting on their mortgage. So we do eviction blockades or vigils where we sit in someone's doorway and risk arrest to keep them in their home, and the bank will then change its mind and start to negotiate."
Professor William Berman, who runs the Housing Clinic at Suffolk University Law School, said he is shocked by the "misguided, knee-jerk" way that banks deal with tenants in Boston.
"We have seen banks that leave tenants in foreclosed buildings without heat, or hot water, and with broken doors, windows, roaches, rats, bed bugs, and other deplorable conditions," he told HuffPost. "We have obtained settlements in the tens of thousands of dollars on behalf of tenants left in deplorable conditions by financial institutions in foreclosed buildings."
The grassroots method of foreclosure fighting is quickly catching fire: No One Leaves currently has about 100 canvassers from different law schools around Boston, and Macher said other schools in about 15 different states met recently to discuss the possibility of starting new chapters. And City Life -- which has proved highly successful in Boston -- is slowly spreading to other cities, including Chicago and Providence, Rhode Island.
"We're challenging the conditions that created the problem in the first place," Meacham said. "All the issues being raised in our street-level organizing are in sync with these international debates about finance and speculation and bubbles, so people can look at that and study it and take action at the block level to do something about it. There's a very powerful and emotional mass movement that's emerged."
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