BARNSTABLE — Rebecca Roberts and her two children could have been living on the street or a shelter by now. But thanks to help from the Housing Assistance Corporation, they were able to avoid becoming homeless.
"They gave us an opportunity at a time of crisis and that meant all the difference in the world," Roberts said during a legislative breakfast yesterday morning at St. Mary Church held for Cape and Islands legislators and their aides. Roberts was just one voice of many who attended the breakfast to encourage local lawmakers and their staff to remember the importance of homeless prevention programs.
Advocates lobbied legislators for level funding of homelessness programs at risk of being cut in light of the ongoing state budget crisis.
Lawmakers have cut millions of dollars from vital homelessness prevention programs in recent years, and Gov. Deval Patrick has threatened to cut more with his Fiscal Year 2011 budget proposal, advocates say.
Of particular significance for local advocates are programs aimed at prevention, like the one that enabled Roberts and her two children to remain in Cotuit rather than moving to a family shelter.
Diane Sullivan, of the Malden-based Housing Families, said preventing homelessness is more cost-effective than putting families in shelters and motels, which is why she is calling for level funding of homeless program budgets in general, but also for some funds now slated for shelters to be re-directed toward homelessness prevention programs. While it costs an estimated $3,000 per month to house a family in a motel or shelter, preventing that same family from becoming homeless — by paying back rent or helping with a deposit — generally costs under $2,000, and that's a one-time payment.
In his budget proposal, Gov. Patrick has proposed further cuts to the Residential Assistance to Families in Transition program, designed to align families with flexible funds to help them maintain their current living situation or move to a different, affordable home. The program budget was slashed from $5.5 million to $160,000 in the current year, and Patrick's budget would further reduce it to $60,000, according to figures provided by the Housing Assistance Corp. But these kinds of programs, advocates say, not only keep families off the streets, they also help prevent the psychological toll that homelessness can inflict, said Allison Rice of the Housing Assistance Corp.
When a family moves into a homeless shelter or motel, there is a spiral downwards within three weeks, Rice said. "Kids are missing school. Mom and Dad are spiraling into depression," she said, noting that the solutions are simple. "The answer to homelessness is housing. The answer to housing is prevention. It's pretty simple."
Rebecca Roberts agrees. A former homeowner who moved back to the Cape to take care of her mother, Roberts soon found herself in the midst of an unforseen family crisis.
Her marriage fell apart, even as her aging mother was dealing with a dual diagnosis of dementia and schizophrenia. As a mother of two, Roberts got a small stipend from the state that enabled her to stay home and care for her mother. But when her mother's condition deteriorated to the point that Roberts could no longer provide home care, she moved her mother to a rest home. "I immediately looked for a job and got one," she said. "But by then, I was two months behind in my rent."
It was a Housing Assistance Corp. homelessness prevention program that kept Roberts and her two children in their home.
"I can never really express my gratitude enough for getting this chance. My goal is to become a homeowner again and contribute to the community that helped me when I needed it," she said.
The House Ways and Means committee's budget proposal, set to be introduced next week, will likely go to debate on the House floor by the end of the month. Once finalized, the Senate will then introduce its proposal. A joint conference committee will have to reconcile the differences between the two versions before a final proposal goes to the governor's desk.
This is another in an occasional series of editorials opposing the repeal of Chapter 40B, the state's affordable housing law.
Chapter 40B affordable housing developments on Cape Cod have not been without controversy.
Unfortunately, some developers have used the law, which allows builders to skip some regulatory hurdles as long as they provide lower-cost units, as a hammer over local boards.
Anxious neighbors, concerned about the possible negative effects of Chapter 40B housing on their own property values, have protested proposed developments in Osterville, Harwich and elsewhere.
But, overall, Chapter 40B has worked on Cape Cod and across the state.
Last year, Tufts University conducted a long-term study of four affordable housing developments originally opposed by local residents and officials.
The Tufts team, led by Rachel Bratt, professor of urban and environmental policy and planning, reviewed the initial arguments of the opponents and then evaluated the outcomes of the occupied buildings three years later.
The four affordable housing developments selected for the study were the Kayla Rosenberg House in Newton; The Preserve in Walpole; Hastings Village in Wellesley; and Dickson Meadow in Weston.
Arguments against the four developments included concerns over neighborhood safety, negative environmental impacts, increased traffic, decreased value of abutting properties, and overwhelmed municipal services, such as schools and emergency services.
After examining the four developments, the Tufts team concluded that "none of the predicted outcomes and fears" materialized. In fact, several positive outcomes resulted.
The study found that the developments added to the attractiveness of the neighborhoods. Traffic problems did not occur, property values did not decrease, and no adverse social conditions in the community resulted.
Here on Cape Cod, there have been similar success stories in Falmouth, Sandwich, Barnstable and several other towns.
Since its inception in 1969, Chapter 40B has led to the creation of nearly 56,000 affordable homes statewide, and there are another 10,900 approved for construction.
Considering that the average price of a single-family home in most parts of the state is $285,000, and a family of four with a combined annual income of $65,000 can only afford a $180,000 home, this is no time to repeal Chapter 40B.
That's the consensus of more than 110 business, civic, religious, academic, environmental, health care and municipal officials across the state who support Chapter 40B.
They include John Klimm, Barnstable town manager; Rick Presbrey, executive director of the Housing Assistance Corp. in Hyannis; and Victoria Goldsmith of Habitat for Humanity of Cape Cod.
"First-time buyers still can't afford to live in the communities where they grew up, the elderly cannot afford to stay in the communities where they have lived their entire lives; and veterans can't find an affordable a place to live when they return home," said Tripp Jones, chairman of the Committee Against Repealing the Housing Law. "Sixty percent of voters recently surveyed said Massachusetts needs more affordable housing. So, we must protect the law that makes affordable housing possible."
Chapter 40B produces more units of affordable housing than any other housing program in the commonwealth. The law also encourages a goal of at least 10 percent of affordable housing in each community across the state. A total of 51 municipalities have met this standard — more than double the number in 1997.
Tripp said an additional 40 communities are close to reaching the 10 percent goal, "demonstrating the significant progress this law has made in the creation of affordable housing."
Back in the early 1990s, when homeless shelters were overflowing, the state placed more than 100 homeless families in motels and family facilities on Cape Cod. Some remained there for months.
"Kids went months with no privacy; parents went months worried about their kids playing in needle-littered motel parking lots," wrote Bob Murray of the Falmouth Housing Corp . in a mailing this week to more than 30,000 Cape Codders. The letter was signed by nine other homeless advocates.
The cost to house the homeless in motels, both in human suffering and taxpayer dollars, was astronomical.
As a result, a group of Cape Codders decided to act. By 1994, the motels were empty, and the family shelter beds began to decrease.
"Our collective success with prevention over the last 15 years has led to a 50 percent decrease in the number of Cape families in shelters, and has eliminated the need to place any families in motels," said Rick Presbrey of the Housing Assistance Corp.
In other regions of the state with less-effective prevention programs, the shelters are full and a record number of families end up in motels.
"Cape Cod became known for its homelessness prevention success," Murray said, "and the group declared to themselves and each other 'never again!'"
But now, unless another prevention effort succeeds, it will happen again.
This fiscal year, the Cape lost a $300,000 earmark for homeless prevention that had been in the state budget since 1993. The budget cuts reduced or eliminated other homeless prevention programs. Today the number of homeless families on Cape Cod and in Massachusetts continues to climb.
"More individuals are facing homelessness than at any time in the past 10 years," said Murray. "The shelters and motels are filling up faster than families are finding permanent housing."
Fortunately, the same individuals and groups that worked to keep families housed since the early 1990s are participating, along with several others, in a new initiative to raise money to prevent homelessness.
"We don't want the motels on Cape Cod filling up like they did in the 90s," Murray said. "We're calling our effort 'Home with a Heart' because it's love and big hearts that will solve this current situation."
Presbrey said the cost of homeless prevention is a fraction of the cost of housing homeless people. "It costs about $2,100 to prevent a family from becoming homeless, but about $4,600 a month to keep a family in a shelter or a motel," he said.
As a result, the group of Cape homeless advocates successfully sought permission from the state to rearrange the Regional Network to End Homelessness budget to create a pool of about $150,000 that is to be used as a challenge match. The current Capewide fund-raising drive is trying to match that amount dollar for dollar to replace the $300,000 earmark.
Money raised will be distributed to the Falmouth Housing Corp., the Housing Assistance Corp., the Barnstable Interfaith Council, the Cape Cod Council of Churches, the Community Action Council, the Dennis-Yarmouth Ecumenical Council, the Duffy Health Center, the Homeless Prevention Council, the Harwich Ecumenical Council and the Cape and Islands' District of the St. Vincent de Paul Society.
Please make checks payable to Home with a Heart, and send to Falmouth Housing Corp ., 704 Main St., Falmouth, MA 02540.
YARMOUTHPORT — Donna Legere was sitting at her computer yesterday morning when the cars started pulling up in front of her home.
A man who declined to identify himself, or the company for which he worked, told her he was there to conduct a foreclosure auction on her house, she said.
Legere tried to explain that she has been in the process of seeking to modify her mortgage and had every reason to believe herself eligible. She told the auctioneer she had a letter from GMAC asking for more documentation about her situation.
"He said that his company told him to go ahead and do it," she said. "They got the go-ahead from the bank."
And shortly thereafter, her home was sold at auction to an investor.
"I was just looking for a little bit of lower payment, to save my house, so I can make it as affordable as possible," Legere said.
In 2009, completed foreclosures were down in almost every month, according to numbers from The Warren Group, a Boston-based real estate data firm. A report released by the company yesterday, however, shows that foreclosure activity picked back up on Cape Cod in December, with the numbers of initial petitions, auction notices and completed foreclosures all increasing over the previous year.
These numbers come just a week after the U.S. Treasury Dept. released a report that many say demonstrates that the federal government's mortgage modification program is failing to adequately stem the country's tide of foreclosures.
"They've just had a lot of frustrations in getting responses from servicers," said Dana LeWinter, program manager for Citizens' Housing and Planning Association, a Boston-based housing advocacy group. "In general, there's a lot of frustration across the board."
There were 49 completed foreclosures in Barnstable County last month, according to The Warren Group, an increase of 26 percent over the December 2008 total of 39. Foreclosure petitions, the first step in the process, rose by 63 percent; auction notices more than tripled.
Last week's Treasury numbers revealed that, nationwide, just 3.4 percent of those mortgages eligible for modification — representing 112,500 homeowners — had been approved for a permanent change as of the end of the year.
An additional 1.16 million mortgages have been placed in trial modifications. There is, however, no way to be certain that a trial modification will work out, especially when a borrower's income has taken a hit.
"Once they're in the trial modification, it's not going to be a guarantee that that's something that sticks," LeWinter said. "It might not be sustainable."
Modifications may just be delaying foreclosures, rather than dealing with the circumstances that brought a borrower to the brink of losing his or her home in the first place, Nancy Davison, vice president of operations for the Housing Assistance Corp . in Hyannis, said in an interview earlier this month.
"We're still seeing 100 new people a month," she said of the undiminished demand for the agency's foreclosure prevention services. "If (the modification plan) has done anything, it's at least prolonged the foreclosure."
A further frustration, LeWinter said, is that "there's not necessarily a lot of communications between the foreclosure department and the modification department" within individual lending companies.
It is this dynamic in which Legere seems to be caught.
"I don't know how they can tell the lawyer to go ahead and foreclose when they haven't reviewed my information," she said.
GMAC spokeswoman Jeannine Bruin could not comment on Legere's specific case, but said that it is the company's policy not to postpone foreclosures until it has received a completed package of financial documentation.
"Once we have the completed documents back, we do the analysis about whether they qualify for a modification or another kind of workout option," Bruin said.
For now, Legere remains in her house. The investor who bought the property talked to her about the possibility of finding financing to re-purchase the property or about having the foreclosure sale rescinded, because she was in the process of seeking a modification.
Her situation, she said, has nothing to do with unwise borrowing. She never stretched her financial limits but fell on hard times when two cancer diagnoses left her with a pile of medical bills shortly before she lost her job at Bank of America.
Now back to work full time, she is just trying to find some way to keep her home.
"It's not a grandiose old house. It's small, but it's mine," Legere said. "Or it was mine."
HYANNIS — The Hyannis-based Housing Assistance Corp . has received a $5,000 grant to help fund financial literacy education efforts.
The money, awarded by the office of state Attorney General Martha Coakley, is part of a $1.1 million grant program intended to support educational efforts that will help homeowners better understand budgeting, recognize predatory lending and avoid foreclosure.
The Housing Assistance Corp . will use its grant to implement a new curriculum addressing subjects like income and expenses, credit, financing options for home buying and the benefits of renting rather than buying.
"It's so people can identify up front, before they start down the home-buying pathway, whether they are ready for homeownership," said Nancy Davison, vice president of operations for the agency.
The grant money should allow the organization to offer its new program three or four times this year, Davison said. The first class is scheduled for March.
The grant money comes from a $10 million settlement between Coakley's office and Fremont Investment and Loan, stemming from charges that the California-based lender engaged in unfair and deceptive lending practices.
Seven Cape organizations have received federal grants to help keep homeless men, women and families off the streets for another year.
The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development recently awarded almost $1.35 million to seven homeless agencies. The grants are awarded competitively, and are renewals from the previous year, said Virginia Ryan, spokeswoman for the Housing Assistance Corp . in Hyannis, which received funding for five of its programs.
The money is part of $56.9 million in grant funding that will keep 302 local homeless assistance programs throughout Massachusetts operating, according to a press release from the federal agency. It's part of nearly $1.4 billion that will help 6,400 existing programs nationwide to continue offering critically needed housing and services to homeless individuals and families, the press release states.
"As we move into the coldest time of the year, it's critical that no program risk running out of money to keep their doors open," HUD Secretary Shaun Donovan said.
Based on the federal agency's latest homeless assessment, chronic homelessness has declined since 2005, according to the press release. "However, data also indicates that family homelessness may be on the rise, particularly in suburban and rural areas," the document states.
Grants to the Cape will go to help homeless people recovering from addictions, and help lawyers who assist the homeless. The money also will support Vinfen, the nonprofit that helps homeless people with mental health problems, among other local groups.
- The Cape Cod Economic Development Council has awarded the Housing Assistance Corporation with a $24,850 grant to establish a culinary arts training program for homeless and formerly homeless individuals.
The program will be developed in partnership with the William Zammer Hospitality Institute at Cape Cod Community College.
Selected individuals will receive training in professional food service skills from the same instructors who teach regularly enrolled students at the institute.
The 14-week curriculum will cover all aspects of food service from food preparation to equipment use. It includes a paid internship with participating employers with post-internship employment as the goal.
SANDWICH — It would have been easy for developer Kevin O'Haire to walk away from the five affordable homes he planned to build off Asa Meiggs Road.
He had to convince neighbors the five affordable houses and five market houses — all considered starter homes — on 5 acres would not blight their South Sandwich neighborhood.
He had to convince three town meetings in two towns to let him tie the development into a Mashpee town water main passing by the subdivision.
He had to convince voters to spend $250,000 in community preservation money on the private development.
He had to make sure endangered box turtles weren't living in the wooded area.
And he had to do all of this in an economy in which new construction has nearly screeched to a halt.
"Perseverance," said O'Haire at the site yesterday where four out of the five affordable homes are in various stages of construction.
That sums up Sea Shell Village, a neighborhood more than three years in the making with five one- and two-bedroom saltbox and Cape-style homes that will be sold for $129,000 and $139,000 apiece through a lottery. The other five market-priced homes will start at $279,000 and will be built in the second phase of this project, said O'Haire, who has teamed up with his partner Douglas Lebel of Heritage Custom Building on the project.
"It was an arduous process for him," said Assistant Town Manager Doug Lapp, who walked O'Haire through the tangle of bureaucratic red tape. "It took a lot of time and effort and perseverance to accomplish."
For example, O'Haire filled out the required forms so the homes would be counted as part of the town's affordable-housing stock only to find there were new state forms, Lapp said.
"A lot of people would have just walked away, but he believed in what he was doing and wanted to see it through," he said.
Sea Shell Village is unique for a couple of reasons — it has one-bedroom options geared toward single buyers or couples with no children and two-bedroom homes for a couple with one child.
"I was trying to identify housing that 18-to-35-year-olds might be interested in buying," O'Haire said, noting that the Cape is losing large chunks of that population.
"He's answering a demand that we all see on the Cape now," said Nancy Davison, vice president of operations for Housing Assistance Corp., which will run the upcoming lottery. "The family size is getting smaller."
The homes are also being built with green technology. Each of the affordable houses has solar panels strategically positioned with a southern exposure that will maximize their potential electric output, O'Haire said. The solar company involved estimates the units will generate 3,566 kilowatt hours per year, saving the homeowner $780 on an electric bill based on today's 21 cent per kilowatt hour price.
"What I'm trying to accomplish is not to just build an affordable home, but one that is affordable to live in," O'Haire said.
Along with the solar panels, the homes feature cellulose insulation beyond what's required by code, Energy Star appliances, fuel-efficient furnaces and low-flow toilets and showers — all in the hope of getting the project LEED certified, O'Haire said. The certification is awarded by the U.S. Green Building Council, a nonprofit with the mission of encouraging sustainable and environmental design.
Davison expects there to be stiff competition for the homes. The last lottery done by Housing Assistance for a Cotuit project attracted three potential buyers for every one home, she said.
"There is an upswing. A year and a half ago, we had a difficult time finding buyers for all units," Davison said.
Despite the obstacles, O'Haire is glad he stuck with the project. "This shows you can include some good features in affordable housing and make it work," he said.
Housing Assistance Corp. will hold an information session on applying for an affordable housing lottery at 6 p.m. May 27, at Forestdale Elementary School. Sea Shell Village is selling a one-bedroom home for $129,000 and four two-bedroom homes for $139,000.
Where to get applications: At the May 27 information session, at Housing Assistance Corp. in Hyannis or at the Sandwich library
When to apply: Applications are due by July 12.
Eligibility is based on the following incomes:
- 1 person - $43,450
- 2-person family - $49,700
- 3-person family - $55,900
- 4-person family - $62,100
Source: Housing Assistance Corp.
For more information about
Sea Shell Village, go online to:
At the beginning of the year, Housing Assistance Corp. was receiving 22 to 25 calls a week from struggling homeowners worried about foreclosure.
Over the past two or three weeks, however, the phones have been ringing ever-so-slightly less often, with maybe 19 or 20 callers inquiring about foreclosure prevention.
"Therein lies a little glimmer of hope," said Nancy Davison, vice president of operations. "It sure is a little one, but at this time we'll take anything we can get."
As analysts and economists begin to wonder whether the worst of the recession is over, there are statistical and anecdotal signs that the rising tide of foreclosures the Cape has experienced for the past two years may be starting to subside.
The number of foreclosures completed in Barnstable County in the first quarter of the year was down 3 percent as compared to the same three months in 2008, falling from 135 to 131, according to real estate data and The Warren Group, a publishing firm that tracks real estate. Foreclosures were down in January and flat in February and March, according to the data.
And the Barnstable County Registry of Deeds reports that 36 foreclosure deeds were filed last month, compared to 60 in April 2008, a drop of 40 percent..
Foreclosures are also down so far in May, said assistant register of deeds David Murphy. As of yesterday, 13 foreclosure deeds had been filed with the registry, a decrease of nearly 28 percent as compared to the same period last year, when 18 foreclosures had been completed.
"The trend downward appears to be continuing," Murphy said. "Maybe not at such an accelerated rate [as in April], but still a significant decrease."
Part of the reason for the falling foreclosures could be that those most likely to default on their mortgages have already done so, Murphy theorized.
"Maybe a lot of the damage has already been done," he said.
Federal foreclosure prevention efforts may also deserve some of the credit, Davison said.
"The modification and refinance programs designed by the administration have given people more of an opportunity to be able to work with banks or lenders," she said.
And though the programs are voluntary, the list of lenders participating "is getting longer all the time," she said.
Some borrowers who were unable to work out a loan modification with their lenders six months ago are now able to make arrangements to save their homes, she said.
"We are now seeing some successes," Davison said.
On Monday, Attorney General Martha Coakley announced that her office has reached a settlement with Goldman Sachs, in which the investment bank has agreed to $50 million in loan modifications.
Goldman Sachs has committed to reducing mortgage balances on more than 700 subprime mortgages, including some on homes in Dennis, Falmouth, Harwich, Mashpee, Provincetown and Sandwich, as well as a cluster near the border of Barnstable and Yarmouth.
"I think it's a good sign that these folks want to settle rather than go into court and drag it on," Davison said.
Not everyone is optimistic that the recent numbers represent a new, positive trend, however.
"I guess I have some fears that it might not last," said Timothy Warren, chief executive officer of The Warren Group.
As long as unemployment remains high, falling foreclosure numbers are unlikely to continue, he said.
In Barnstable County, 10.9 percent of residents were jobless in March, according to state numbers. This rate is expected to drop, however, as seasonal businesses do their hiring for the coming summer.
In addition, Warren said, many banks had temporarily held off on initiating foreclosure proceedings, while they waited to see what kind of rescue plans the Obama administration would implement.
"I suspect we'll start to see them grind back into action," he said.
Keep paying: Even if you can't pay the whole mortgage, keep paying something every month. It demonstrates good faith and keeps your outstanding balance as low as possible.
Communicate early and often: Contact your lender as soon as you know there's a problem; the further you fall behind, the harder it will be to work things out with a lender.
Get help: Contact a housing counselor, who will be able to help you assess your situation, determine your options, organize your finances and negotiate with your lender. On Cape Cod, foreclosure prevention counseling is offered by the Housing Assistance Corp. at 508-771-5400.
Avoid foreclosure prevention companies: The fees charged by these companies could be better put towards paying down your mortgage, and the services offered can generally be obtained for free from counselors at your local housing agency.
Get online: These Web sites have more tips and information about foreclosure prevention programs:
The Times ran an interesting story on April 29 under the headline, "Cape Homeless Provider Runs Out of Money."
The good news is that Housing Assistance Corp. hasn't completely run out of money for everything we do. We are still here in the community, providing whatever housing services we can, working so that everyone has access to a safe, stable and decent place to live.
The bad news is that we really have run out of the money that we, for years, have been able to pass onto people at risk of becoming homeless. The state has cut back on money for homelessness prevention at a time when the number of people who need help is greater than ever. The weak economy is pushing more people out of work and more people to the brink homelessness.
Our front line staff says that lately they've been seeing 10 new families every day seeking homeless prevention help. But we are literally out of public prevention money. So every day, there are 10 more people we cannot help. Ten more people who may end up in one of our shelters, a friend's couch, their car, the street, or worse.
We're now seeing 25-35 new households each week facing foreclosure, most in crisis because of a drastic drop in their income. Federal funding for foreclosure prevention will be gone by July 1. And the moratorium on electricity and gas cutoffs that had been in place over the winter is about to be lifted. That means anyone who fell behind on payments to provide heat or electricity to their home could lose their service beginning May 1.
HAC has already been notified that 10 of our clients will be shutoff unless we come up with a plan. And without power, a house is inhabitable. The double whammy is that if the service is disconnected for lack of payment, it can't be restarted — there or even at another address — unless the balance is paid or an arrangement is made with the utility.
HAC is utilizing private gifts from individual donors to prevent homelessness wherever it can. We are partnering with other agencies, like the Cape Cod Times Needy Fund or St. Vincent de Paul Society, to pool our meager resources and offer whatever help we possibly can. Our staff is working with the utilities and landlords to work out payment plans for people who are about to lose their home or be shut off. The utilities, quite honestly, don't get any pleasure in shutting off someone's service. So sometimes even a small payment goes a long way. But the resources we have even for repayment plans are far short of what is needed.
Preventing homelessness may seem costly, but it's a bargain when compared with the cost of shelter. A one-time payment of $2,000 plus support is the cost of preventing a family from becoming homeless. It costs about $4,600 a month to shelter a family. Prevention assistance always goes directly to pay someone's housing cost — a month or two of back rent, a utility payment, funds to help them move into a new apartment — the minimum necessary to keep a family housed so that they can get back on track, even if it means moving into a less expensive home.
Most families who face homelessness are also facing another unavoidable crisis: A child is diagnosed with a serious, life threatening illness. The death of the primary breadwinner. Divorce. Loss of job. No matter the reason, we know that it is best for the family unit — unquestionably best for any children involved — if the family can remain in their current home or transition to a different home in a calm, reasonable manner. We know that it is best for the community because a family that is housed is more stable. We know that it is best for government because it is so much more cost effective.
Gov. Deval Patrick and Lt. Gov. Tim Murray are vocal in their commitment to reduce homelessness across the state. That's why so many of us voted for them. But what we really need is for them to let their money do the talking and come up with financial assistance that will allow people to remain in their homes during these most difficult times.
Rick Presbrey is CEO/president of the Housing Assistance Corp. in Hyannis