Faith Groups Raise Voice To Protect Neighborhoods Affected By Foreclosure

Community News

At a roundtable, fifteen Muslims nervously share stories about their financial problems. It is a new concept especially for older immigrants, not used to airing their laundry in public, more so inside a masjid. They are at the Dar al Noor Islamic Center in Manassas, VA located in a county heavily hit by the mortgage crisis. Some skip their turn but then gain the courage to speak up, after seeing others in the same situation.

At one of the two listening sessions organized by Virginians Organized for Interfaith Community Engagement (VOICE), the Bashirs* are speaking with a mortgage counselor. The Bangladesh Center for Community Development Inc (BCCDI) has representatives present to guide homeowners who speak Bangla. Adil Khan, the VOICE representative from Dar al Noor, is present as he helped organize the event.

They were a two income family. Mrs. Bashir lost her job and after numerous attempts at looking for work in the US, she is headed overseas. Mr. Bashir is also out of work. No longer able to afford childcare for their son with a medical condition, Mr. Bashir stays at home as his caretaker. They had fulfilled their American dream with a house in Manassas, but are under on their mortgage.

On June 3rd, 2013 VOICE announced $30 million in financing for a Prince William Restoration Pilot in front of more than 500 faith and community leaders and US Sen. Mark Warner (D-VA, Banking Committee) in Woodbridge, VA.

“Through the efforts of VOICE the financial institutions have agreed to right a wrong that was done in PW County,” comments Imam Johari Abdul Malik of Dar Al Hijrah, a VOICE faith leader. VOICE is a coalition of almost 50 faith communities and non-profits in Northern Virginia including Dar al Hijrah, one of the founding congregation of VOICE, Dar Al Noor, Muslim American Society- VA and the ICNA masjid.  In Imam Shaker Syed’s words, VOICE was launched in October 2008, with one heart, one hand, one voice to seek truth through power.

“We raise the banner forth until it reaches every street, home and every shelter, every family that is affected. God can help them hear the voice of the poor and hold our elected officials to their promise,” Imam Johari thundered at the first meeting in 2008 about the importance of organizing and justice.

The VOICE approach is influenced by the Industrial Area Foundation model, the ones who trained Barack Obama. There is safety in numbers says Imam Johari. “If you want to build power you need a large number of organized people, not photo ops. Strength comes from joining like-minded people, so we joined others and formed VOICE.”

Since it started its Foreclosure and Subprime Lending Accountability Campaign in April 2011, VOICE has secured $363,000 – from Bank of America, JP Morgan Chase, and General Electric –to fund 5 new, non-profit housing counselors, more than doubling housing counseling in Prince William area.

Prince William was burned in the foreclosure tinderbox. Real estate records show that more than ten percent of households in the county went into foreclosure between 2004 and 2009. According to VOICE, in the jurisdiction with the most foreclosures in the state of Virginia (more than 16,000) and the 26th highest percentage of underwater properties in the United States (47.4 percent), a team of more than thirty VOICE volunteers found irregularities in a random selection of more than 1,600 real estate records.

VOICE organized and directly confronted Bank of America CEO Brian Moynihan in 2011. Thanks to the Religious Shareholders’ Proxy Resolution, religious leaders had meetings directly with bank presidents, brokered by Sen. Warner, who sits on the Banking Committee.  Major financial institutions accepting partial responsibility for the collapse of the Prince William housing market will invest more than $30 million to rehabilitate dilapidated housing and provide hundreds of affordable rental housing units.

A recent Propublica expose details how Bank of America employees regularly lied to homeowners seeking loan modifications, denied their applications for made-up reasons, and were rewarded for sending homeowners to foreclosure, according to sworn statements by former bank employees.

This financial fiasco needed such a voice to bring it to task. They provided researched reasonable options to the banks and got results.

To ensure the pilot’s success, JP Morgan Chase is being asked to invest $10 million in a 1%, 20-year loan. JP Morgan Chase had the highest number of Prince William foreclosures, exceeding $300 million.  “This is a step in the right direction but more work needs to be done,” comments Khan.

Muslim families are clearly not getting the help that they need early in the process, according to the mortgage counselors that came to attend sessions at the masjid. The Tuurs*, an elderly couple worked aggressively with VOICE, who even connected them to an attorney, but because they had come so late in the process they were faced with very limited options.

They ended up losing their home, and have since relocated to an apartment. In the Tuur’s* case language and culture played a big part in getting the help that they needed.
“We recognize that many community members were hit hard by the predatory lenders, who have effectively taken advantage of homeowners,” says Imam Johari.

Some people are ashamed that they were ‘bamboozled’, and others bought more than they could afford. “Other communities are on top of this issue, whereas we are doing this for the first time,” says Khan. From what Khan has seen in the Muslim community, families can not wait until they have received a certain number of notices to look for help.

Muslims face an additional burden of the stigma of taking riba. According to most Islamic scholars interest based loans are not permissible. Imam Johari states that unlike in churches, many Muslims are ashamed to come forward, scared that they will hear an ‘astaghfirullah and brother you shouldn’t have done it’ tirade. Many wealthier masajids think that they do not have this issue in the congregation.

Khan adds that it is incumbent on masjid leadership to relay the message that there are services for help and if people have gotten in trouble with their mortgages they need to come forward before it is too late. Education about financial decision making is direly needed.

A study released by HUD showed that many borrowers that had tried to contact their servicers on their own, had not been successful in negotiating with their lenders. With a counselor’s help, 69 percent of counselees obtained a mortgage remedy, and 56 percent were able to become current on their mortgages.

Khan recommends that if you are in a mortgage problem then call one of the HUD approved counselors. They are federally funded and will not ask for payment up front. Many desperate homeowners have fallen victim to fraudulent mortgage modifications on top of the already predatory practices by banks. Counselors speak the language of the bank and can serve as an advocate.
As stated by VOICE, the pilot would acquire and rehab more than 100 vacant properties in townhome communities hard hit by foreclosure, eliminating blight, raising property values, and create 1,500 units of affordable rental housing over 15 years for families who lost their homes to foreclosure and who now pay more than fifty percent of their income in rent. The communities need these to stabilize the neighborhoods.

Georgetown South does not have a huge concentration of Muslims but Manassas does. When Khan drove around from house to house with a team from VOICE, he discovered an area adjacent to the masjid with a large concentration of Muslims and blighted homes. The masjid was established in the eighties and it is a growing community. There is also opportunity here to reinvest.

This is not more section 8 housing as some Manassas residents have complained about online. Khan says that lots of hard working people--teachers, county workers--were impacted in a real way. Across the board there are people who got into hard deals, some through predatory practices by banks, while others made choices that they clearly should not have made.

There are lessons in organizing for effective change as done by VOICE, which can earn respect in quarters that seem far beyond reach.

*Names changed for privacy, based on true stories