Legislature, Council taking steps to confront rising tide of foreclosures

A trio of bills aimed at stopping an expected wave of thousands of foreclosures this year went before a Beacon Hill committee this week as the City Council appeared poised to okay its own legislation.

The three bills, sponsored by state Sen. Dianne Wilkerson, would ban evicting tenants from foreclosed properties without "just cause," create a 180-day moratorium statewide on foreclosures and set up a judicial process.

"These are three modest steps that should stop some of the bleeding and some of the suffering and force the institutions that are seemingly callously looking the other way while families are being destroyed," Councillor Charles Yancey told the Judiciary Committee on Tuesday.

Yancey and Councillor Michael Ross pushed the "just cause" legislation, saying they were confident that the City Council would pass a local version of the bill when it met Wednesday, after the Reporter went to press.

The legislation would only allow for the eviction of a tenant if they weren't paying their rent or engaging in criminal activity.

In Wilkerson's bill, owners who violate that would be fined $10,000 for each separate offense, according to the legislation. The bill has a sunset provision, set for December 2013.

Ross, Yancey and Councillor Chuck Turner, who submitted written testimony to the committee, said they expected Mayor Thomas Menino to sign the local version of Wilkerson's bill, Menino aides did not return a phone call seeking comment. The bill is expected to be different from Wilkerson's bill in that it explicitly makes clear that tenants are the only ones affected by the bill, and it would only be in effect for two years.

If passed by the full council and signed by the mayor, the local bill, known as a home rule petition, would then need the approval of the Legislature and the governor.

The Greater Boston Real Estate Board and the Small Owners Association have raised concerns about the bill, saying the foreclosed buildings would become difficult to sell due to new landlords' reluctance to take a building with tenants who have a right to extend their lease beyond its expiration date.

The local bill is a back-up in case the package of bills at the state level fails to pass, according to supporters. "Boston has its own set of needs and issues," Ross said.

Turner added that he would be submitting local versions of the bills next week that would establish a foreclosure moratorium, the first since the 1990s, and a judicial review process in Superior Housing Court.

In the meantime, Wilkerson said she hopes to have her bills taken up by the full Senate after she and her colleagues go through their version of the $28 billion budget that was due to be released this week. The House passed its version earlier this month.

According to the latest figures from the Warren Group, 2,827 homeowners lost their homes to foreclosure in the first quarter of 2008, a figure that seemed likely to continue rising. March foreclosures topped February's by 36 percent.

A top Patrick administration official offered qualified support for Wilkerson's "just cause" bill, but took a more cautious approach on the other two bills.

"We believe the implementation of such practices current administration efforts to keep neighborhoods stable," said Undersecretary Dan Crane, from the Office of Consumer Affairs and Business Regulation.

Crane said he preferred to wait and see how the 90-day "right to cure," or cooling off period, pans out before commenting on the bill establishing a 180-day moratorium.

The period went into effect earlier this month as part of legislation passed in November for new foreclosures, in which a foreclosing lender must provide a notice of delinquency to the borrower and then offer to "cure" it. Previously, homeowners were only given 30 days notice, the lender didn't have to give homeowners an opportunity to "cure" a default and avoid foreclosure.

But lawmakers noted that the Legislature will soon be out for the summer, due to return in January after the election season and the holidays.

"We're not in business 90 days from now," said Rep. Marty Walz, a Boston Democrat.

Crane said the administration also has no formal position on the bill establishing a judicial review process.

"If a lender wishes to take away probably the most expensive and the most important asset [a homeowner] will ever buy, they need not even enter a courthouse," Wilkerson said in the bill's defense. "There's something so very crazy about that."

Tracie Tyler, a 47-year-old who lives in a 1-bedroom apartment on Talbot Ave., was in the crowd waiting in line to testify before the committee. She and her two daughters are going through the foreclosure process. Her daughters live in East Boston and another section of Dorchester.

If the judicial review legislation was in effect, "we would've been able to go to court" and stop the foreclosure processes, she said.

"There is no process in Massachusetts right now," Wilkerson said.

Material from State House News Service was used in this report.