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Law students going door to door to spread word on foreclosure rights

PRINCE GEORGE’S COUNTY — When Gabriel Rodriguez-Rico and Danielle Dean met one recent Saturday in Prince George’s County to help residents of foreclosed homes, they ended up heeding, in a way, the advice they were handing out: “Don’t move. Don’t panic. You have time.”

“That is a huge dog,” Dean said about two hours into their mission.

“A horse,” said her partner.

There, crouched in the front yard, a long chain around its neck, was a wolfish canine blocking access to a home near FedEx Field.

It was just one more barrier that the volunteers with Take Back Your Home — a student-run outreach program at American University’s Washington College of Law — needed to surmount to notify homeowners and renters of their rights and cut through the confusing, intimidating or misleading information in foreclosure documents.

Homeowners in Maryland have just 25 days to request mediation after they receive a final notice of pending court foreclosure. This can save their home, but only if they know their rights. Likewise, renters don’t have to move, even if notices from a landlord imply that time is short.

The Take Back Your Home group compiles addresses of hundreds of foreclosed homes in Prince George’s County in hopes that its members can meet residents early in the process to encourage mediation and counseling services, and help them surmount the barriers.

Often, they run into barriers of their own — like the dog.

“You run over on this side and I’ll run on the other,” joked Rodriguez-Rico, stepping forward as the dog perked up.

With no clear route to the porch — and after contemplating jumping a neighbor’s fence, they settled for leaving a red information baggie on the chain-link fence post. Not ideal, but at least they got the word out.

Elsewhere, they had to leave a bag on a porch light. The door was just a tall slab of plywood, the house almost certainly vacant, like two nearby homes in the Capitol Heights neighborhood.

Some homeowners don’t even know they’re in foreclosure until they get a knock on the door. They live in regular homes in regular neighborhoods — and often, said coordinator Ashly Hinmon, they can even pay their mortgage, but fell behind in past months because of unemployment or illness.

“For someone to have a home and then lose it is such a tragic thing. It’s such a personal thing,” Hinmon said. “All the hard work they’ve put in is just falling away before their eyes.”

It’s even more dispiriting when the group’s outreach efforts come too late.

“The hard thing is when you go to houses that are already abandoned,” Hinmon said. “I’m really curious about why people are making the decision to abandon the property before they get the notice that they have to vacate.”

Leaving is not always necessary. A homeowner’s right to mediation means that residents are entitled to a meeting with the bank to renegotiate mortgage payments or find alternatives. If residents don’t understand this right though, or if they can’t read the pages of documents from the bank, they may miss their opportunity.

“They are extremely worried or informed just by rumors or hearsay,” said Rodriguez-Rico, who has a law degree in his native Mexico. “The information we provide them is a good start to get effective and free help.”

The foreclosure process can be even more confusing for renters. By law, they may stay in the property under the new owner, who must honor their lease. With no lease, most renters can stay at least 90 days after foreclosure proceedings have concluded.

The problem is that too few people understand this.

When the housing bubble burst in 2007, Prince George’s County was particularly hard hit. From April 2008 to September 2011, nearly 103,000 notices of intent to foreclose — the precursor to a foreclosure court filing — were issued for properties in the county, according to state records. Second-highest Baltimore City had about 56,000 notices over that period.

Not all the homes were foreclosed on, but even now, nearly a third of all the state’s foreclosure cases are for property in Prince George’s County. From July to September, the county had close to 900 foreclosures, and about 1,500 foreclosures from April to June, though some properties are counted in both groups.

The state does not yet have numbers for this year, but reported 12,000 unique foreclosures for the county in 2010. Even as foreclosure cases have dropped, notice-of-intent-to-foreclose filings have spiked this year, according to monthly reports from the state.

Trends like that in Prince George’s prompted American University graduate Bradford Voegeli to found Take Back Your Home as a student last year. He said he thinks the country is still square in the middle of a housing crisis.

“One foreclosure happens, and that’s a very unfortunate thing, but it’s very matter of fact,” said Voegeli, who earned his law degree in May. “When millions of foreclosures are happening at the same time, something is incredibly wrong.”

His outreach started in The District last summer during an internship with Bread for the City and took root on campus last fall when he found classmates who shared his interest. Once foreclosure mediation was made mandatory in the District of Columbia, foreclosure filings abruptly dropped. Good for homeowners, bad for the fledgling project.

Foreclosures remained high in Prince George’s County, and the group shifted its focus.

Mediation was already available in Maryland, but too few homeowners pursue it, or even know it’s an option, said Susan Bennett, an AU law professor who has taught classes focusing on the housing crisis.

That’s why Take Back Your Home continues to be important to Dean and Rodriguez-Rico, who with their driver Brianna Ford, note how difficult it can be to reach residents, even if they’re still in their homes.

On this Saturday, they pulled up to a modest house with bright blue shutters and white poinsettias on the porch. Leaves had been bagged and neatly piled on the front yard, and they thought they were in luck when they saw a man walk from the backyard to a side door. But when they knocked — no response.

“Aw, we’re trying to help — we see you keep your house up nicely,” said Ford, peeking in through the door.

“This is sad,” said Rodriguez-Rico. “We should hide in the corner and try to come out again.”

The group left their information packet on the door handle.

Then, while returning to their car, the man appeared in the window. They exchanged waves, and Rodriguez-Rico ran back to greet the man and attempt to explain his rights.

They had a brief conversation in Spanish, but back at the car, he gave the group bad news — the man had already started packing.

In nearby Mount Rainier, the group’s next home had a sign tacked to the door: “Life’s Too Short — Dream Big — Reach for the Stars.”

The residents weren’t there — and were perhaps gone already — so the group left another bag, moving on to the next string of addresses — some boarded up, some vacant, and some with families inside unaware they might be forced from homes they thought were their own.

“It’s kind of like you fight for the American dream,” Ford said, “and it turns out that people just take it away from you.”