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Megaphone: Stephanie Greenwood, Newark/Essex Foreclosure Taskforce

January 9, 2012
Megaphone iconStephanie Greenwood, 34, works in the City of Newark’s Economic and Housing Development Department and staffs the Newark/Essex Foreclosure Taskforce, which works to address the impact of fore-closures on residents and neighborhoods in Essex County. Prior to joining Newark City Hall, Stephanie completed a Masters of Public Affairs and Urban and Regional Planning at the Woodrow Wilson School at Princeton University. She spent four years as a researcher with Good Jobs New York and also worked as a researcher and organizer for SEIU Local 1947, the Committee of Interns and Residents. Her writing has appeared in Dollars and Sense, Sojourner, Lilith, and on the website of The Nation, and she is editor of 10 Excellent Reasons Not to Hate Taxes, a book published by The New Press in 2008. She was interviewed by Naomi Rothberg. Jewish Currents: The foreclosure crisis has devastated the country. How badly hit was Newark, New Jersey? Stephanie Greenwood: Newark was seriously affected by subprime and predatory lending in the early 2000s, and after the housing market collapsed in 2007, foreclosures spiked. It’s important to know that decades of racial discrimination in lending and housing markets had made it difficult for Newark residents to get affordable loans, and therefore made them particularly exploitable. In the 1940s and 1950s, it became easier for white Newarkers, including Jews, to move out to the suburbs and buy homes, a path that was closed to African Americans, more and more of whom were moving to Newark from the South. Since the mid-’60s, when Newark became majority Black and Latino, most of it was redlined — basically declared off-limits for reasonable home loans. Then, in the early 2000s, lenders started making money packaging mortgages for the investor market. Huge amounts of lending capital became not only available, but aggressively marketed. Those mortgages had nothing to do with ability to repay, or even with the value of houses. Non-native English speakers, the elderly, Black and Latino families, and women heads-of-household all were targeted for subprime loans. There are stories of brokers showing up at people’s doors, of contracts being signed before the information was filled in. In many cases, people would have qualified for prime mortgages — but no one shows up on your doorstep offering one of those. There are a few heartbreaking stories of seniors who had paid off their mortgage but still lost their home because someone talked them into taking out a new loan. There were also cases of outright fraud, with marketers lying about the terms or switching papers after they’d been signed. There were people who signed for loans they probably knew they couldn’t afford, believing sellers’ promises that the value of housing would keep going up. Some took out refinance loans to make repairs, to send a grandchild to college, or to buy a second house and try to make some money along with everyone else. Over a quarter of the subprime loans made in Newark between 2005 and 2007 went into foreclosure by the end of 2008, according to Kathe Newman, a professor at Rutgers who has worked closely with us on responding to the crisis. The impact of these foreclosures has to be understood in the context of the Newark housing market, where only about 25 percent of residents are homeowners and where many of the buildings affected are two- to four-family homes. Foreclosures can have a devastating effect on tenants. In many cases, the landlord is not a deep-pocketed investor, but someone living nearby who owns two or three properties. When the market goes bad, they often stop maintaining their property or even paying for electricity and water. Tenants get letters from banks and brokers telling them to get out — or they don’t hear from anyone. Seeking stability, or believing that they have no right to stay, many move out and leave a vacant house behind. In some neighborhoods, there are streets with over half the houses abandoned. These are often stripped of their metal fixtures and become a public-safety problem, attracting squatters or gang activity, or having fires or gas explosions. That has impact on all the other houses on the block, making it more difficult for neighbors to stay. People end up crowding in with friends or relatives, moving into worse housing, or becoming homeless. The neighborhoods, some of which had seen great progress over the last few decades, deteriorate. JC: Don’t New Jersey tenants have protected status? SG: New Jersey tenants have spectacular legal rights, some of the strongest in the country. Foreclosure is absolutely not a reason for eviction in New Jersey, where the bank is required to step into the shoes of the landlord. But a lot of people don’t know that, or don’t believe their rights will be respected, or don’t know how to navigate the legal system to get their rights enforced. Meanwhile, the house is falling down around them and people are pushing them to get out. So even though tenant rights are great in theory, they’re not always useful for keeping people in homes. JC: How did the Newark/Essex Foreclosure Taskforce come together? SG: Under a mandate from Mayor Booker and with direction from Mike Meyer, Newark’s director of Housing and Real Estate, we brought together a coalition of about thirty-five groups, including housing counseling agencies, Legal Services attorneys, Rutgers researchers, and people from city, county and state government, from HUD, and from community development organizations that had seen decades of their neighborhood-building efforts collapsing. Using data from Dr. Newman at the Edward J. Bloustein School of Public Policy at Rutgers, we tried to understand what we were facing and develop programs to respond. One of the first things we did was to walk around tearing down signs that said, “I’ll buy your house for cash,” or, “We buy raggedy houses.” We went door to door passing out literature about getting free, legitimate help and also about how to avoid scammers who were offering “guaranteed” help for fees of $2,000 to $5,000, with which they’d disappear. The HUD-certified housing counselors, who were trained to help people buy first homes but now are dealing with a huge demand for foreclosure prevention, help figure out what borrowers can afford and try to navigate the process of negotiating with the banks for loan modifications. That’s a tough job because the loan servicers, many of whom are overwhelmed themselves, don’t necessarily have the financial incentive or even the authority to do a real work-out. The Taskforce doesn’t have nearly enough legal resources, but there are some attorneys working to prosecute cases of fraudulent and predatory loans. We also do a lot of work educating tenants about their rights. Several Taskforce members were instrumental in getting legislation passed that re-quires tenant notification and holds banks responsible for code violations in cases of foreclosure. JC: Can you gauge the effect you’ve had? SG: Mediation and modification programs have helped some people, but it is clear that working with individuals case by case is not addressing the problem quickly enough or on the scale needed. But there is an important benefit to all of us from being in communication with each other. The Taskforce served as the basis for a successful application to HUD for a five-town consortium, led by Newark, that received over $20 million in block grants from HUD to buy and rehabilitate abandoned houses. We’re working more collectively on the problems we each face, so that’s good. JC: Banks don’t actually want the buildings they foreclose on, do they? SG: It’s definitely not in their interest to take over the management of housing. They’re not equipped to do it, and walking away from that responsibility means that their $200,000 asset will be stripped and end up selling two or three years later for maybe $20,000. I think the banks are tangled up by the way the loan industry got structured. When the loan contracts become securitized, the original lender is out of the picture. That was the idea, to sell the greatest possible volume of contracts to homeowners and then immediately sell these contracts on the securities market, where pools of investors are represented by servicers whose sole responsibility is to collect loan payments — to enforce terms, not renegotiate them. Even if it seems as if it would be good for the investor to keep someone in the home and paying, there’s often no one with authority, information, and incentive to negotiate a meaningful solution. The system was not set up to deal with a huge volume of failing loans. It was set up for the boom, not the bust. JC: Have federal programs been helpful? SG: The federal and state programs on foreclosure tend to work better in wealthier communities. Most don’t apply to “investor-owned properties,” which cuts out a lot of Newark from the start because of our high tenant population. But even for our homeowners, being lower-income or living in a poorer area makes it less likely that you qualify for help. For example, a state program in New Jersey doesn’t apply if you owe more on the loan than the house is worth. That’s the condition in a lot of the hardest-hit neighborhoods. Then there is a federal program designed for people who are losing a home because of recent unemployment. To qualify they have to have twelve on-time mortgage payments prior to the job loss. That’s hard for a poorer family to do. Then there are some programs such as the federal Making Home Affordable program, which has serious implementation problems even for those that appear to qualify. If you don’t have someone advocating for you, it’s hard to get through the system. There’s also the basic paperwork problem: a web of interests connected to every loan, many pieces of paper that have to be tracked down and kept up-to-date and submitted and resubmitted. The servicer might turn down a borrower for no clear reason. People in one branch of a bank don’t know what the other branch is doing. There’s tremendous time and effort going into the resubmission of documents that get lost. Counselors, who are very important to navigating all this, are under-compensated, and there aren’t enough of them to go around. The individual approach just can’t do much about the systemic problems. We need an across-the-board approach. The federal government needs to mandate that all lenders take a write-down, based on the inflation of the original loan or the overvaluation of the house. Then, in the long term, I think some of the most hopeful strategies have to do with moving more home ownership out of the international capital markets and into more locally controlled hands — for example, community land trusts and limited-equity coops. Home ownership may not always be the best way to build assets or stabilize a neighborhood. JC: Switching focus to you personally: Is there a connection between your Jewish identity and your commitment to working in the public interest? SG: I always liked the social justice stream in Judaism. When I was a little kid, I spent a lot of time at Bnai Keshet, the Reconstructionist synagogue in my hometown of Montclair, New Jersey, where Rabbi Joy Levitt, one of the first women rabbis, and the whole synagogue community emphasized those parts of the tradition: that you’re commanded to do more than to believe; you’re supposed to know what it’s like to be a stranger; that the problems of society are our problems and we have to work together toward solutions. At the same time, Montclair itself has a very wealthy part of town that is largely white, and a very run-down part that is largely African American. While liberal members of the community were talking about tolerance and equality, there was not always a conversation about how race and economic inequality were manifesting around us. It gave a young person food for thought, especially with the notice-and-do-something-about-it moral sensibility that was encouraged at our synagogue. I was a pretty religiously-oriented kid, more or less, until I got to college. There, I’m sorry to say, I found people at the Hillel not friendly. And we had political differences, especially about Israel and Palestine. For a while, it seemed as if the observant Jews and the social justice crowd really diverged. I reconnected when I moved to Brooklyn and became involved with Jews for Racial and Economic Justice. They made the social justice tenets of Judaism the basis for organizing Jews around local issues like affordable housing, the rights of domestic workers, and immigrant detention. Since I moved to Newark, many people I work with are religious Christians and they tend to assume I am a religious Jew. This actually can be helpful in building relationships. And I’m more re-connected with Judaism nowadays, not so much by becoming so observant, but because I’m a member of a Newark synagogue. JC: Didn’t the synagogues leave Newark in the 1940s and ’50s, along with the Jews? SG: All but this one, Ahavas Shalom, which has been in Newark for over a hundred years. The congregants were working-class and didn’t have the money to move the shul to the suburbs like most other congregations. Back then, the shul was Orthodox, but over time it lost so many people that it needed women to make up a minyan. So it became Conservative and egalitarian. The membership now is much more diverse than any other Jewish environment I’ve been part of — internationally, ethnically, and racially. Politically, members might come from different places, but especially with the leadership of synagogue President Eric Freedman, everyone agrees that Ahavas Shalom should be part of making Newark a better place. The synagogue has helped build playgrounds for Newark public schools. There’s a lot of involvement from the leadership with other community organizations in town, as well as a commitment to make the synagogue space itself available to community organizations that need a place to meet. There’s also a strong involvement with Newark history and cultural life. The synagogue converted the second floor — formerly the women’s gallery — into the Jewish Museum of New Jersey. The Museum sponsored a fascinating panel discussion a few years ago in which Jewish and Black Weequahic alumni compared notes on teachers they’d had in common. Weequahic, you know, was the Philip Roth Newark, a majority-Jewish part of town, with a renowned high school. In the ’60s, it went from being majority-Jewish to majority-Black in about three years. The alumni from that three-year period spoke about their experiences with teachers, the school, and the neighborhood to a big audience full of Weequahic High alumni. The Weequahic High Alumni Association is a really strong group, with programs for the kids in the high school today. Last year, on Martin Luther King Day, the synagogue organized a major celebration, with Rabbi Capers Funnye, Michelle Obama’s cousin, coming in from Chicago to give a powerful keynote speech. He spoke about the obligation of tikkun olam (repair of the world), about housing and health care policy in a religious context, and about the moral imperative to act on today’s social problems. City Council members and other dignitaries were there, and it was a great day. As an outgrowth of that event, the synagogue hosts the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice’s “Women Builds” program, for women ex-offenders looking for work in construction. Excerpts of Dr. King’s writing are also included regularly in the synagogue’s weekly newsletter, based on “the desire,” as the synagogue president says, “to further enhance our understanding and commitment to all peoples.” So there’s a big commitment to making a meaningful contribution to the civic life of Newark — and they’ve been really open to new ideas on how to make that happen. At the request of three of the members, the president and the board agreed to support an anti-usury campaign, part of a national effort to call attention to the harmful practices of financial institutions that refuse to cap interest rates at 10 percent. Jews have a particular historical and current relationship to the world of finance — and now, more than ever, given how the financial markets have unraveled the economy, there’s an important place for Jewish activism on financial justice issues. Bnai Keshet, under Rabbi Elliot Tepperman, is also a part of this campaign. So I get to work with my old and my new synagogue. So the answer is yes, my Judaism has helped shape my social justice perspective and my activism.