City steps up housing education

The number of vacant, foreclosed buildings in tiny Central Falls has declined significantly, from over 300 at the height of the Great Recession to 20 or so today.
Now Mayor James Diossa and state Attorney General Peter Kilmartin are taking steps to ensure there will be fewer foreclosures in the city in the future. The two political leaders recently announced Central Falls, with a population of about 19,000, has received a three-year grant of $250,000 to educate residents about homeownership and the mortgage process.
The funding comes from five large mortgage-service providers, as part of a settlement they reached with state attorneys general throughout the country, including Kilmartin.
“Since I’ve become mayor, I’ve been dealing with a lot of families who don’t really understand foreclosure, and that’s one reason why some end up losing their homes,” Mayor James Diossa said.
“We’ll be using part of this grant to hire someone, a counselor, who can educate people about the process. It will be a full-time position, paying $40,000 to $50,000 a year.”
There will also be classes in English, Spanish and Portuguese, to teach families about home finances and avoiding foreclosure. People who are considering buying a home will be encouraged to attend, too. The classes will take place in various venues around the city.
According to Kilmartin, while the number of foreclosed properties in Central Falls – the state’s smallest and most densely populated city – has shrunk, the community is still struggling with the issue. “The city continues to have the highest rate of total foreclosures as a percentage of the mortgaged housing stock in Rhode Island,” he said.
“In many ways, Central Falls is ground zero for this country’s housing crisis. Central Falls was our hardest-hit community when the housing market collapsed. Almost overnight, houses were abandoned; properties foreclosed upon; and boarded up. And those who were able to stay in their homes saw property values fall through the floor.”
As part of the plan to address the issue, Diossa has also assembled what he calls a Nuisance Task Force to identify properties that could fall into foreclosure if the owners fail to correct problems or pay property taxes. At this point, the task force has a list of 90 buildings, and plans to meet biweekly with the owners to track their progress. “They have code problems or there are nuisance or public-safety issues,” Diossa said. “We want to avoid foreclosure by banks or by the city. We want to keep people in their homes.”
The task force consists of the mayor himself, the state attorney general, the city solicitor, the city clerk, and representatives from the police department, the fire department and the city planning department.
There are no business owners, real estate brokers or bank employees involved. What’s more, Diossa bristles when asked what role lending institutions will play in his plan of action.
“We’ll go after banks if we have to,” he said. “If they’re not cooperating, if they leave a building vacant, we’ll let them know they have to keep up maintenance or put it on the market. And they’ll have to work with families to help them stay in their homes. We want to make sure everyone is involved in this process.”
None of the grant money will be used to board up vacant buildings, according to Diossa. “We would only consider demolition if there is a quality-of-life issue,” he said.
Kilmartin describes foreclosure as a law-enforcement issue. “Vacant and abandoned properties are targets for criminals to use as a base for illegal activity, from stealing copper from the homes to selling drugs out of the property,” he said. “There is a great risk of fire, as vagrants may infiltrate the property and ignite fires to keep warm. Letting properties fall into disrepair and be foreclosed upon creates a public nuisance and public-safety issue, and brings down the value of the whole neighborhood.”
Central Falls’ economic woes go well beyond vacant properties. At the height of the recession the city fell into bankruptcy, and for a time city government was run by a receiver.
Kilmartin predicts the foreclosure-prevention program will boost the city’s recovery. “House by house,” he said, “street by street, neighborhood by neighborhood, this grant will help the city continue its mission to return to economic security.” •

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