For too many people, the ‘recovery’ never happened
Frances Louis unlawfully walked into an unlocked vacant townhouse in Roxbury in 2009 claiming that the new owners owed her a moral debt to let her stay there.
The 41-year-old mother of three had lost her family home to foreclosure and argued that the bank that had purchased it was complicit in the housing crash that prompted tens of thousands of foreclosures across Massachusetts.
Surprisingly, Louis’s bold move was successful. She was allowed to stay in the three-story home after a nonprofit purchased the property and sold it to a company willing to rent to her.
But now Louis is again facing eviction — this time fighting a fourth rent increase from her current monthly payment of $1,545. Asked about the housing recovery that has pushed Massachusetts housing values up over their past 2005 highs, she asked Monday: “What recovery?”
Louis’s landlords, City Realty, did not respond to requests for comment. While her story is unique for the way she secured her home, Louis joins many former homeowners struggling to survive as renters in the Boston-area a decade after the 2008 stock market crash and housing collapse.
Less than 20 percent of US homeowners who lost a property to foreclosure in the first quarter of 2008 have obtained a new home loan over the last decade, according to the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston.
The average monthly rent in Greater Boston hit nearly $2,190 during the second quarter of this year, according to the real estate firm Reis Inc.
Steve Meacham, a community organizer for a Jamaica Plain-based tenants’ right group, said he is increasingly seeing former homeowners — now renters — seeking help fighting evictions prompted by investors’ efforts to cash in on the booming rental market.
“The people who improved neighborhoods over years are getting pushed out,’’ Meacham said. “It isn’t right.”
Indeed, the housing recovery depends a lot on who you are and where you live, reflecting a widening wealth gap in the state. Median sales prices for single-family homes in Massachusetts reached $365,000 last year, a nearly 3 percent increase from the state’s last housing peak in 2005, according to the Warren Group. Some Boston-area communities, like Brookline and Cambridge, have seen huge rises in property values over the last 12 years, while other municipalities, like Ashburnham and Fitchburg, are still well below past highs of 2005.
And for renters, salaries remain relatively stagnant, leaving people like Louis struggling. And although the number of foreclosures is down from its 2008 peak of 12,424, many homeowners are still at risk. Last year, almost 10,000 mortgage holders were put on notice by lenders that a foreclosure process is underway.
“It’s hard to say what normal looks like for us now,” said Cassidy Murphy of the Warren Group. “There are still parts of the state that are still just barely holding on.”
Some residents facing foreclosure include those who first got into trouble years ago, after signing up for toxic subprime loans that pushed the country into the Great Recession. A September report by the US Department of Treasury shows that nearly half of homeowners who obtained modifications through the federal Making Home Affordable Program between 2009 and 2012 ended up more than three months delinquent on payments within six years, with some of them ending in property seizure.
There’s also a growing cohort of elderly homeowners facing displacement because they can’t afford to pay their taxes and insurance. Some are being pushed out by third-party investors who purchased their tax liens and are seeking recompense. Others are fighting foreclosure after complications from a “reverse mortgage,” a loan product meant to help seniors age 62 and older age in place.
Louis has been fighting eviction since January in housing court, hoping to stay in her home with her two elderly parents and a son who has part-time work. A former clerical worker, Louis is now on disability and says the stress of the legal fight has affected her health. She is willing to pay more rent, she says, but nothing “exorbitant.”
Eloise Lawrence, of the Harvard Legal Aid Bureau, who is representing Louis, said her client’s case reflects how the housing crisis for many has long-term reverberations. “The injury continues to flow from this catastrophic event,’’ she said.
Jenifer McKim covered the housing market as a staff writer at the Globe between 2008 and 2013. She is now the senior investigative reporter at the New England Center for Investigative Reporting, a nonprofit news center based at Boston University and WGBH News.