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Fed Officials to Tour SW Side Foreclosures

Federal Reserve officials will tour a Southwest Side neighborhood plagued by foreclosures and later meet with residents and community organizations to discuss the issue.

It’s part of an effort by a Chicago-based national network of community organizations to push for stepped up regulation to stem foreclosures, while giving local affiiliates a chance to raise the concerns of their communities.

Brighton Park Neighborhood Council became a HUD-certified counseling agency last year, and executive director Patrick Brosnan says that case-by-case consideration of loan modifications by mortgage services “just isn’t working.” “It isn’t even putting a dent in the problem,” he said.

Current loan modification efforts are purely voluntary, and it’s often difficult to get a response from mortgage servicers to requests for help, he said. It can take months to get an answer, and applicants who seem fully qualified can be rejected with no reason given — and no recourse or appeal.

The National Training and Information Center and local groups– including BPNC, Southwest Organizing Project, South Austin Coalition, and the Interfaith Leadership Project of Cicero — want the Federal Reserve to call together the banks with the largest number of foreclosures in the region to consider a plan to streamline their loan modification process and to offer assistance proactively to borrowers whose loans are unaffordable.

They also want the Federal Reserve of Chicago to work with them to examine whether banks are engaging in unsound business practices by basing their loan modification offers on statewide calculations for home values. Values have dropped much more dramatically in lower-income communities than elsewhere, said Jordan Esteveo of NTIC. “They could be shooting themselves in the foot by working under the assumption a property is worth a lot more than it actually is,” he said.

NTIC is pressing the Fed to expand the reporting requirements of the Home Mortgage Disclosure Act, a 1975 law which the group helped write. Originally aimed at redlining, the law requires disclosure of the race and gender of lending institutions’ customers. Other data including credit scores and loan-to-value and debt-to-income rations are needed to keep tabs on newer, more exotic loan products, Esteveo said.

They’re also calling for Congress to modernize the Community Reinvestment Act of 1977 to include mortgage companies and other mortgage originators. “Across the country we’ve seen constantly that loans by institutions regulated by CRA are much less likely to go into foreclosure,” Esteveo said.

Thursday’s meeting is the seventh of nine hearings being held in communities across the nation (including an August 15 hearing in Decatur) following a meeting with Fed chair Ben Bernanke in March. A final hearing, with Barney Frank, chair of the House housing committee, takes place in Massachusetts on November 1. A followup meeeting with Bernanke is also slated.

“People who’ve been victims of foreclosure and people who are fighting it in different ways” will testify at the hearing, along with housing counselors and public officials, Brosnan said. It takes place at 5:30 p.m. at Shields Elementary School, 4250 S. Rockwell.

Local groups are also pressing for an expansion of the definition of property owner in by the city’s ordinance requiring registration of vacant properties — they want institutions that have foreclosed to be covered even if they don’t hold title. And they want a portion of registration fees to go to foreclosure prevention outreach strategies, Brosnan said.

They particularly want support for homeowners to fight foreclosure in chancery court, he said.

Recruiting LSC candidates

“The community here takes LSC elections very seriously — just as seriously as Hillary and Barack,” said Darryl Bell of Teamwork Englewood.

The group is one of a dozen around the city working with “minigrants” from the CPS Office of LSC Relations to recruit candidates for April LSC elections. The deadline for candidates to file is March 12.

PURE recently posted an updated guide to LSC elections (pdf).

Bell reports enthusiasm among community residents for the elections — in part motivated by concern over the consolidation of the Miles Davis Magnet and Vernon Johns Middle Schools. He said the change could create trouble by requiring students to cross gang boundaries.

Bob Vondrasek at South Austin Coalition reports a bit more difficulty in recruiting candidates. Organizers have encountered some negative attitudes toward LSCs, he said.

“Some go bad. Some are controlled by the principal,” he said. “But even with all the flaws, they’re still doggone worth having. They’re the only way you can have some kind of voice in the school.

“At it’s best, a good LSC and a good principal are the two key things. You get more parental involvement and more community involvement.”

“It’s extremely difficult motiving parents to run for LSCs when the board continues trying to close or turn-around schools” — acting unilaterally, without consulting their LSCs, said Wanda Hopkins, a parent advocate at PURE and LSC member at Lewis school who’s working with SAC on candidate recruitment.

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Austin Groups Want New High School

A newly-constructed, traditional open-enrollment high school in Austin is one of the goals of a new alliance of community groups focused on a comprehensive educational plan for the West Side neighborhood.

This week the groups invited CPS officials to a public meeting at Frederick Douglass High School, 543 N. Waller, to discuss reports that CPS was considering closing Douglass. The former middle school was converted to a temporary high school in 2004 when Austin High was closed to new enrollment.

CPS chief of staff David Pickens told the meeting that Douglass would remain open next year but would be reevaluated on an annual basis. He invited community groups to meet with him quarterly to monitor that process.

The “uncertainty, misinformation and miscommunication” around plans for Douglass “leaves students feeling like they’re in limbo” – and mirrors the larger failure of CPS to involve parents, students, and the community in educational planning, said Virgil Crawford of the Westside Health Authority, one of the organizers of the meeting.

He said Pickens’ proposal for community oversight of the evaluation of Douglass was “a good first step.”

This spring WHA convened the Austin Roundtable on Education with the South Austin Coalition, the West Side Ministers Coalition, and other groups and individuals involved in education. They are working toward formulating a comprehensive educational plan for the community. They also want CPS to be open about what plans, if any, they have for schools in the neighborhood.

One clear goal of the Roundtable, according to Crawford: “A traditional high school is exactly what we need in our community.” A high school is “one of the centers of a community” and can serve as a focal point for “broad based community participation and community pride and a whole community culture of learning.”

Austin has one of the largest populations of Chicago’s communities, with the highest density of students, Crawford said. Currently three-fourths of Austin’s high school students attend schools outside the neighborhood. Austin High has reopened with one small school, and two more are planned for the building. Douglass, originally built as an elementary school, is inadequate in terms of capacity and facilities, Crawford said.

“We want what CPS would provide for any other community,” he said. “We are ready to take this campaign to the streets, to organize action after action after action, even if it means visiting some of our officials at their offices or at their homes. We feel this community deserves better treatment from CPS.”

Community Organizer Visits Baghdad

After years of helping residents of Chicago communities get basic services, organizer Elce Redmond is bringing the tricks of his trade to Iraq.

Joining a six-member Christian Peacemaker Team delegation traveling to Iraq from September 16 to 30, the South Austin Coalition organizer said he planned to work with Baghdad residents who have been unable to get water, sewer, and electrical services — “good bread-and-butter issues to organize around” — targeting local Bechtel Corp. officials who are responsible for Baghdad’s infrastructure repair.

“I believe that community organizing is a great tool to address issues of oppression and disenfranchisement,” Redmond said. “If we can get some victories, we can get them to see that non-violent community organizing is the way to go, rather than violence.”

Redmond has conducted leadership development and organizing trainings in a number of war-torn countries, including Bosnia-Herzogovina, Northern Ireland, Argentina, East Timor, and Cote D’Ivory.

As he was leaving, news media were reporting that many infrastructure repair projects were being suspended by the U.S. for lack of funds, and money was going to hire private security forces to guard unfinished water and electric projects.

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