Students Take to the Streets to Aid Displaced Tenants

Hundreds of Boston tenants living in foreclosed properties were told this year by lending institutions that they must leave their homes, joining the ranks of people wounded by the country's growing housing crisis.

Most do as they are told, pack their belongings, and leave, housing advocates say.

Today, 106 Boston law and college students plan to join community activists to walk the streets of Dorchester, Hyde Park, and South Boston, to advise tenants to stand their ground and stay in their homes. Calling it the "No one leaves campaign," students aim to advise tenants of their legal rights to stay in their homes, even after foreclosure. That will help slow abandonment and blight in vulnerable neighborhoods. They are focusing on the 28 zones in Boston and Chelsea with the most foreclosures.

"Tenants have an amazing amount of rights and a lot of ability to fight these evictions," said Harvard Law School student Nick Hartigan, 25, one of the main organizers. "Banks should do the responsible thing and allow people to stay."

The kickoff is a stepped-up version of a yearlong effort by the Jamaica Plain group City Life, which has gained publicity for blockading the evictions of homeowners in foreclosure. Housing advocates say many tenants don't realize they have a right to a judicial hearing before eviction, even in a foreclosed home. When a property is foreclosed upon, the bank becomes the new landlord and is responsible for maintenance.

"We've seen examples of tenants living with no heat, no water, with rats and roaches," said William Berman, an associate professor at Suffolk University Law School. "These are serious conditions that do give rise to serious legal claims. You have a right to a habitable premises."

Boston tenants this year are affected by the nearly 190 foreclosure sales each month, the vast majority of them multifamily dwellings or condos, according to Warren Group, a real estate tracker. There were 8,804 foreclosure deeds filed statewide in the first eight months of this year, up 79 percent from 2007.

Hartigan, a third-year law student, said he and Harvard Law student David Haller, 27, wanted to do more to help evicted tenants after volunteering at Boston Housing Court.

They were frustrated by hearing stories from tenants who received eviction notices after their homes were foreclosed upon. Many were offered $500 to $1,000, without knowing they had a right to decline.

The students got together with Harvard Law student Tony Borich, 25, who was interning at City Life, and strategized.

They wrote e-mails and visited schools, recruiting coordinators and volunteers from several colleges to canvass the city. Besides Harvard Law, schools include Boston College, Boston University, New England School of Law, Northeastern University, Suffolk University, Tufts University, and Simmons College.

Suffolk Law School student Jonathan Heeps, 25, was glad to get involved. "With the economy being the way it is, it seems very unfair to be kicking people out of their homes in the middle of winter," he said. "We need to change the way business is done by the banks or the landlords."

The students hope that teaching tenants to fight their evictions will encourage lenders to allow residents to stay as they try to find new owners, maintain the properties themselves, or sell to tenants or former owners.

Tracie Tyler, a 47-year-old administrative assistant fighting her eviction, plans to join the students today. She has been struggling since spring to stay in her one-bedroom, $950-a month Dorchester rental. In August, she declined a $2,000 offer from mortgage holder Fannie Mae and now is waiting for the lender to go to court. Fannie Mae was unable to comment late yesterday.

"We are fighting for the right to pay rent and just to live," Tyler said. "Here we are being penalized in something we have no fault in. . . . We were paying our rent until we could no longer find a landlord."

Tyler is energized to have student involvement in what she sees as the important quest of getting the news out.

"They are young, they are vibrant, they inspire us older folks," Tyler said. "There are people that are afraid who don't know where to go."

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