Civil legal aid protects Americans’ housing

Civil legal aid helps protect people’s housing by securing bank mortgage modification after the 2008-2009 financial crisis, and by getting government help after natural disasters.

Civil legal aid helps Vermont woman modify her mortgage and save her home

The New York Times published this column on July 31, 2015:

After Lucy Circe became disabled and could no longer work, she applied to Bank of America for a mortgage loan modification on her Vermont home. Over more than two years, starting in 2012, the bank repeatedly requested copies of documents that had already been provided, asked for proof that she was no longer married to a man she did not even know, and made other errors, like asking why Ms. Circe had indicated that she didn’t want to keep her property when she had actually told the bank she did.

None of it made sense. But a disturbing report on the federal government’s Home Affordable Modification Program issued on Wednesday suggests that Ms. Circe’s experience was anything but unique.

Advertised in 2009 as a lifeline for as many as four million troubled borrowers, the program was one of the Obama administration’s signature efforts to help homeowners….
It appears that the program has allowed big banks to run roughshod over borrowers again and again.
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Ms. Circe’s efforts to modify her loan took a number of twists and turns. A year after she applied for the modification, in October 2013, Bank of America denied her application, saying “all borrowers are unemployed,” even though Ms. Circe’s Social Security disability insurance and rental income on the house were more than enough to support a modified payment.

Jessica Radbord, her lawyer at Vermont Legal Aid in Burlington, kept battling on her behalf.

Finally, in April, Bank of America agreed to modify Ms. Circe’s loan.

“It’s kind of stunning when they come back with all these strange reasons for denials,” Ms. Radbord said. “What really bothers me is, how on earth would a homeowner be able do this on their own?”

Homeowners wouldn’t be, and the government isn’t helping them much. That goes a long way toward explaining how a program intended to help four million troubled borrowers instead gave them the boot.

Civil legal aid helps Katrina and Sandy disaster victims in Mississippi and New Jersey with housing recovery

The Huffington Post published this op-ed by Voices for Civil Justice Executive Director Martha Bergmark on May 23, 2014:

As a civil legal aid lawyer and a veteran of Hurricane Katrina, I’m all too familiar with our mistakes during disaster recovery. And while you think we would have learned from Katrina, it’s clear from what’s happening in regions affected by Sandy that we haven’t. Fortunately, civil legal aid programs are helping thousands of families, from Mississippi to New Jersey and beyond, recover from flawed recovery policies and their inadequate implementation.

Here’s how.

First, civil legal aid programs are helping residents access the funds they deserve — and reducing the number of qualified applicants that relief programs erroneously reject.

HUD’s review showed that New Jersey’s contractor wrongly rejected thousands of applicants affected by Hurricane Sandy. Similarly, Mississippi disqualified some 4,000 eligible applicants for housing recovery assistance they had been waiting for since Katrina struck. Vigilant monitoring by civil legal aid lawyers and their community partners led to a re-evaluation of the applications and an additional allocation of $40 million to help families during the long-delayed recovery.

Second, housing recovery policies give too little attention to the needs and circumstances of low- and middle-income people following a disaster.

After Katrina, for example, hundreds of Mississippi families whose homes were destroyed or badly damaged did not have clear title to their property. If local legal aid programs and hundreds of pro bono lawyers had not intervened, these families likely would have been unable to receive assistance under the state’s guidelines. Working together, they negotiated with the state to change the eligibility policy, securing millions in housing recovery assistance for families who needed it most.

Next: Civil legal aid protects Americans’ livelihoods