Thursday, February 21, 2008

Hendry Street Foreclosures: Fluke or Portent?

When it comes to property owners around Hendry St in Dorchester, Leonard Habiyakare, Jr. is an exception. While some have sold out over the past few years, and others succumbed to foreclosure, Habiyakare has been struggling to keep his three-family house, which is at the end of the street. With help from ACORN, he managed to get his mortgage modified, but he still has trouble finding tenants.

“It is very—I have to say—very strange,” he said in a recent interview on Neighborhood Network News, “because you walk down the street, and there’s no neighbors. Actually, I only have two neighbors—like down the street. I have two houses next to me, and the others all have plywood.”

When Mayor Thomas Menino announced a foreclosure intervention plan for Hendry Street last Thursday, things were still going downhill. Officials at the announcement stood in front of four three-deckers in a row that were vacant and boarded up. The house across the street—though still occupied—had a “for sale” sign. And, before the announcement was over, a tenant in Habiyakare’s house, Donia Jefferson, came out to say the company servicing the mortgage wanted her out by Tuesday.

To break the chain of foreclosures on Hendry, Coleman and Clarkson Streets, the city plans to invest in fixing up buildings and take legal action. During most of Menino’s tenure, the city’s housing strategy has mainly been to use a modest public investment for leveraging more units in private ownership, preferably with owner occupants. The strategy on Hendry Street is dramatically different: a heavy public investment, with outside ownership likely for what officials can only hope will be the short term. The city’s plan includes taking at least five properties for back taxes.

“This is a special project are for us,” said Menino, “and we’re going to work to make this neighborhood what it was four years ago, where people wanted to live and raise their children.”

But even the best of times on Hendry Street are part of a long, troubled history. The street has been periodically infamous for crime problems, going back at least to the anti-drug campaigns led by Georgette Watson in the mid-1980s. And the rash of foreclosures—at least 12 properties on Hendry, Clarkson, and Coleman Streets counted by city officials—quickly spread through an area dominated by absentee ownership, much of it by a trust for one family.

The family trust sold a home to Habiyakare in April, 2005. By early October, 2006, the trust sold three other properties on Hendry and Clarkson streets to a single owner. Within little more than one year, two of those properties had filings for foreclosure, as would another property purchased from the same trust on Ridgewood Street, Dorchester, in December 2006. A property sold by the trust nearby on Quincy Street would be taken by foreclosure in January of 2007, after yet another change of ownership.

The path to the foreclosure process was also quick at 19 and 21 Hendry Street. Both three-deckers were converted by the same buyers. The units for each building sold on the same day—in March and September 2006—and for the same price: $299,000. They were all on the way to foreclosure by the fall of 2007. And the last owner before the filing for foreclosure on 17 Hendry Street was involved in the conversion of a three-decker on Draper St, Dorchester. That conversion resulted in foreclosure filings on two units.

“You superimpose the housing stuff on top of all the rest of it, and that’s a recipe made for disaster,” said Davida Andelman, a community health organizer for the Bowdoin Street Health Center.

A neighborhood resident for 23 years, Andelman says it was difficult to organize Hendry St residents because fear and intimidation were “outrageous.”

“It really is crying out for owner-occupancy of the houses,” she said. “That would go a long way.”

City officials and people familiar with times of trouble for housing in Dorchester agree it will take more than market forces to fill vacancies around Hendry Street. Just across Hendry St from the four vacant three-deckers in a row is a block with 8 homes, all but two of them vacant. Still at least partially occupied is the two-family house at 27-29 Hendry St. A lender filed for foreclosure on the property more than a year ago, and the owner is also faced with foreclosure on another property in Dorchester, on Carlos St.

“We haven’t seen anything quite like this neighborhood, where in such a small geographic area there’s such a concentration of foreclosures,” said mayoral advisor Pat Canavan, in an interview on Neighborhood Network News.

Canavan said there will probably be two buyers salvaging the foreclosed houses, possibly as rental property until the neighborhood around Hendry St is stabilized.

“This is one situation where we think the private market will not work,” said Canavan. “Across the city, we don’t anticipate a whole lot of city involvement on foreclosed properties because we think the private market will take care of it.”

One observer who has been rehabilitating distressed properties in Dorchester since the late 1970’s, Patrick Cooke, agrees that it’s too soon to expect new owner-occupants to take on a home around Hendry St.

“Whoever buys it has got to be in for the long haul,” said Cooke, “and be prepared to lose money for several years.”

Though Cooke says the density and lack of open space around Hendy St would always make the area a challenge, he says the sharp rise and fall of the real estate market has also left other neighborhoods in Dorchester vulnerable.

“There are a whole lot more streets that will be as problematic as Hendry St,” he predicted.

While few streets in Dorchester have the same concentration of boarded-up buildings, signs of financial distress can be found as far away as Ashmont Street in Neponset and in the St. Mark’s area. In a conversion at 11 St. Mark’s Rd, three units that sold in 2006 for at least $325,000 apiece were all at least in foreclosure process by January of this year. And a condo in a three-decker on Ashmont St that sold less than three years ago for more than $400,000—with hardwood floors, marble countertops and Jacuzzi—is currently on the market for $250,000.

The transactions leading to foreclosure around Hendry Street also took place near the peak of a real estate market, when prices soared as multi-family houses were converted into condominiums. Though the market left many other properties noticeably improved, the flood of financing around Hendry St only made it possible for sellers to walk away before the next buyers defaulted.

“We went through a period in basically four years in which it made no sense to buy a three-decker as a three-decker. The people who bought three-deckers were in the market for a conversion,” said Cooke.

“If we don’t change the way of mortgage lending now,” he said, “this will be a way of life.”

For more coverage on foreclosures in Dorchester, visit the Dorchester Reporter.