A ray of hope in foreclosure fight

Just two months ago, Aaron Brokenbough had no clout and little say when lenders moved to foreclose on his home. His Philadelphia row house was scheduled for a sheriff's sale, the end of the road for most homeowners who are behind in mortgage payments.

That was before a Philadelphia court decided to step in with this unusual order: Sheriff's sales cannot go forward without a last-ditch effort by the lender and homeowner to work out a deal.

The court also gave Brokenbough some muscle, matching him with a volunteer attorney and housing counselor to take his side against his lender and their lawyers. Brokenbough feels a ray of hope.

“I'm overwhelmed,” said the 36-year-old former mail processor, who fell behind on payments after he lost his job and his wife incurred medical bills from a surgery. “I'm hoping to save my home.”

Philadelphia is just the latest in a growing number of cities – including Los Angeles, Baltimore and Trenton, N.J. – that are taking matters into their own hands to help stop the nation's housing crisis within their borders.

With more than a half-million foreclosed homes on the market, and more than 3 million borrowers behind on their mortgages, more cities are aggressively reaching out to residents and filing lawsuits against lenders.

While politicians debate in Washington, many cities are on the front lines of the foreclosure crisis: fielding calls from desperate homeowners, and fighting vagrancy and crime around vacated properties.

“We can't wait on the federal government,” said Douglas Palmer, mayor of Trenton, N.J., and the president of the U.S. Conference of Mayors. “We're taking action.”

Cities are under the gun to act: A report released by the U.S. Conference of Mayors last November projected economic losses of $166 billion this year for 361 metropolitan areas. These stem from lost tax revenue and jobs as well as slower consumer spending that come with home equity declines, and don't even include the financial toll of increased crime, fires and building code violations.

To try to recoup part of that money, some cities are suing lenders. But it's not easy to go after federally regulated companies.

In January, Cleveland took the public nuisance route and sued 21 major investment banks and lenders, charging that their subprime lending practices devastated neighborhoods and hurt property values and city tax collections. Baltimore sued Wells Fargo & Co., alleging a pattern of predatory lending practices in its poorest neighborhoods. Minneapolis and Buffalo, N.Y. are engaged in similar litigation.

This week in Jacksonville, Fla. – where the foreclosure rate is three times the national average – officials are launching a campaign to promote the city's interest-free loans. Distressed homeowners can get up to $5,000, which will be forgiven if they stay in their homes for at least five years, said Dayatra Coles, manager of housing services.

Louisville, Ky., also is giving out up to $5,000 in loans. The loans will be forgiven if the homeowner stays put for a decade. The city has teamed up with the United Way to offer access to housing help in addition to the charity's social services.

In order to battle a foreclosure rate that is 2.5 times the national average, according to First American CoreLogic, Trenton's mayor has asked pastors to preach at least one sermon in June on foreclosures and to distribute information about where to get help. Church volunteers became walking billboards, wearing “Save Trenton Homes!” T-shirts with hot line numbers on the back.