Families in crisis over finances get legal assistance
April 21, 2008 8:00 AM
Attorney Irene McLaughlin, foreground, hugs Stephanie Beechaum as she leave Beechaum's Hill District home. McLaughlin helped Stephanie recover the title to her family home. Next to Stephanie is her life partner of 30 years, Jim Boddy.
By Diana Nelson Jones Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Daryl Kendrick wants to own the Wylie Avenue house where his mother's belongings are still arrayed, where her clothes are hanging in a closet. It was the family's home for all the holidays and the haven he and his siblings could count on when their lives hit rough patches.
For now, it's off limits while the mortgage company and his attorney negotiate debt payments and get the title transferred into his name.
Mr. Kendrick is one of 80 clients, all but eight in the city of Pittsburgh, who did not walk away from the family home, who have fought foreclosure, struggled to get title and found a way to afford payments as clients of the Equity Protection Project.
The project is a partnership between a law clinic at the University of Pittsburgh and Neighborhood Housing Services. Law students get training and low-income people get the home-ownership counseling and legal expertise to become the homeowners they probably wouldn't be otherwise.
And it isn't just any affordable home that's saved. It's an emotional connection; in Mr. Kendrick's case, "a house his mother worked so hard for," said Irene McLaughlin, the project's attorney.
Grants from an anonymous client and the Heinz Endowments recently expired, and project director Dan Friedson said he hopes to find new grants to rehire Ms. McLaughlin. For the time being, she is completing the active cases as a volunteer under the project's insurance, with continuing help of pro bono title attorneys.
"For Irene and myself this work is a sort of ministry," said Mr. Friedson. "By hook or crook, we'll keep the program going."
As a result, Mr. Kendrick said he expects to be in his mother's Hill District house as early as summer.
"I never dreamed how complicated and stressful this would be," said Mr. Kendrick, 51, who transports patients for the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center. "Irene has been a godsend."
Many people get into a foreclosure over a second mortgage, said Mr. Friedson. "They're trying to save their house, and they're on a fixed income and might accept a less than favorable loan" to do it. Black people in particular have been the prey of predatory lenders because "they have a long history of not getting loans from banks."
Most clients are city residents, notably from Homewood, the North Side, Beltzhoover, Mount Washington and the Hill District. Eight in Clairton were part of a much larger revitalization of a public housing neighborhood.
Mr. Kendrick's mother, who died last fall without a will, was the victim of a predatory lender. Her son is faced with a debt that's greater than the value of the home, a 1920s butterscotch-brick row house. He works full time but can't afford the debt, and the house needs a new roof, among other things.
"My mother died before she could claim the $600 owed her from the settlement" of a class-action case against the predatory lender, he said.
He could qualify for a home-ownership program run by the Housing Authority of Pittsburgh, "if I can negotiate his debt down to the home's value," said Ms. McLaughlin.
For 10 years as the city's Housing Court judge, she'd hear poor-me stories all day dealing with scofflaws, slumlords and the well-intended who failed. She lost her role in 2003 amid a state-mandated realignment of courts and went over to the other side -- advocacy.
"I see the typical working poor, who have the legacy of a home" but can't afford all its costs. "For many of my clients, the debt is greater than the value of the home. I see these owner-occupants as the front line in preventing blight."
When she left Housing Court, she was hired to run the Home Ownership Preservation Project for Don Driscoll's Community Justice Project with settlement money from a class-action lawsuit against Capital Assets Recovery Corp. In 2006, when the CARC settlement money ran out, Mr. Friedson adopted Mr. Driscoll's project by hiring Ms. McLaughlin.
"It was important to me to save that program because Irene was the only lawyer in town at the time offering free legal services to homeowners with a title or a tax lien problem," he said. Now, the Allegheny County Bar Association works on wills and against predatory lenders for low-income clients.
Among Ms. McLaughlin's clients in the CARC settlement and later, in a title transfer, was Stephanie Beechaum, who was trying to hang onto the house on DeRuad Street. She had bought it with her mother in 1973 for about $15,000.
DeRuad is a narrow, dead-end street in West Oakland that has been blighted for some time. Ms. Beechaum grew up nearby and had relatives and family friends on the street when it was better cared for. She raised her four children in that house.
The mortgage is paid off, but between liens and taxes, she owed about $10,000 when Mr. Driscoll brought his lawsuit. Her mother had died a few years earlier and she was disabled, unable to work but not yet getting disability payments.
In 2000, she was shocked by a $59,000 property assessment and appealed.
Malcolm Hardie, who was working then for the city controller, handled the appeal, visited DeRuad, inspected the house, took photographs, researched values and lowered her assessment to $15,000.
When the mortgage company was threatening foreclosure on Mr. Kendrick's mother's house on Wylie, he said, "they told me they realized the house isn't worth that second mortgage. They were demanding payment, and the turnaround came when Irene stepped in. Then it became negotiable."
Sitting on the porch of the house, its old metal glider facing the street, Mr. Kendrick said, "My mother's spirit still lives here."