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Joe Surkiewicz: St. Ambrose legal program helps homeowners in foreclosure

Low-income people struggling with the loss of their homes to foreclosure are not only scared and confused.

They are also vulnerable to predators.

“It’s because foreclosure proceedings are in the public record,” said Christina Ochoa, a staff attorney in the Legal Services Program at the St. Ambrose Housing Aid Center. “They often are scammed.”

One client, for example, paid $1,500 to attorneys in Florida to help her with a loan modification procedure in Maryland — and had nothing to show for it.

“They were actual, real attorneys!” Ochoa said. “It was very scary. After we filed a complaint with the Florida bar, we managed to recover the money. The client believed anyone who said they could help her. That’s just one example of the kinds of predatory people out there soliciting desperate, scared homeowners.”

St. Ambrose’ Legal Services Program provides housing-related legal services geared toward the preservation of housing, mostly with issues such as foreclosure, landlord/tenant disputes, title issues, and  tax sales.

“We see ourselves as an open door for people at risk of losing their homes,” said program director Owen Jarvis. “We’re here to serve low-income people who can’t afford an attorney.”

With its small staff — currently, two full-time lawyers (and soon a third) and a paralegal — the program helps more than 800 people a year.

Legal services include brief advice, negotiating and even litigation.

“And it’s all free or very low cost,” said Jarvis, who recently took over management of the program. “Our staff is small, but despite our limited resources we still manage to help a lot of people.”

Not surprisingly, foreclosure is still the number one legal problem.

“But it’s rarely an isolated issue,” Jarvis noted. “A common call that we get is a request for help in getting answers from the bank and asking us how long they can stay in their homes. It can be very unclear what the real threat is.”

The lawyers explain to frightened callers where they stand in the long foreclosure process, and provide peace of mind that foreclosure proceedings are a long process, and that it’s unlikely that anyone will coming to change the locks on the doors in the immediate future.

“A conversation on the phone with us can be very valuable in explaining the options,” Jarvis said. “The information available online or in mailings can be difficult for a homeowner to relate to his or her specific matter.”

Tailored services

The legal program works closely with St. Ambrose’ team of housing counselors, who assist clients with preparing documents for loan modifications and coaching them on budgets to achieve a sustainable modification. If legal questions arise, they are passed to the lawyers.

In addition, the program employs a community liaison (currently part-time, but soon to become full-time). The liaison attends community meetings to make people aware that legal help is available.

“He lets us know what people want, so that we can tailor our services to their needs,” Jarvis said. “We’re building on the work of our previous managing attorney, Jeanette Cole, and the great work she did during her three years here. We hope to see the number of cases grow.”

While foreclosure is the biggest issue now, eventually that will shift.

“Other prevalent housing-related legal problems  include tax sales, landlord/tenant disputes, and issues faced by seniors, such as reverse mortgage defaults,” Jarvis said. “Baltimore city is our focus, although we also take calls from the surrounding counties.”

Take tax sales, where low-income homeowners often lose their homes over unpaid water bills. One client, herself a criminal defense lawyer, had her home mistakenly sold in a tax sale.

“But the city had miscalculated,” said Ochoa, the staff attorney. “Although she was a lawyer herself, she didn’t know the process. We got her the information she needed with a couple of phone calls. She was so confused, and we really helped her.”

Most of the program’s funding  has been  from the Maryland Legal Services Corp., the City of Baltimore, and the Department of Housing and Community Development.

“For clients, it’s a lot of small victories,” Jarvis said. “Often, they just can’t get answer from a bank. They make the phone calls, but they’re not answered or returned. We’re able to get them answers and help them.”

Jarvis foresees 2016 as a year of growth for the program.

“We’re very dedicated to community outreach,” he said. “We  want local residents facing house-related legal issues who cannot afford an attorney to know that we are here and we can help.”

To contact the legal program, call (410) 366-8550 and ask for extension 249.

Joe Surkiewicz is director of communications at the Homeless Persons Representation Project in Baltimore. His email is [email protected]