Finance

Fighting Foreclosures Using Emergency Management Tactics

As a young paramedic in Sarasota County, Florida, Bob Stuckey learned to respond to emergencies using a protocol known as the Incident Command System. Originally...
by | December 31, 2009

As a young paramedic in Sarasota County, Florida, Bob Stuckey learned to respond to emergencies using a protocol known as the Incident Command System. Originally developed to allow firefighters from multiple jurisdictions to work together, ICS provides a standardized command structure that allows first responders to plug right into any emergency situation and know whom to take orders from. ICS is easy to understand and highly adaptable. Whether he was called to an auto accident or a regional wildfire, Stuckey says, ICS provided "a common language and a common structure -- one that could expand or contract quickly."

These days, Stuckey has more of an office job as the county's director of communications. But he's never lost his enthusiasm for the Incident Command System. When the home foreclosure problem hit Sarasota County two years ago, Stuckey saw something familiar -- a disaster much like a hurricane, complete with displaced people and abandoned properties. So when Stuckey was directed to help organize a countywide response, he did what emergency managers do: He organized personnel from different departments into a single command using the ICS system. Launched just a year ago, the effort now has grown into a comprehensive communications network that has peppered buses, bus stops and the airwaves with an ad campaign to inform homeowners about their options for avoiding foreclosure, as well as coordinating the activities of some two dozen local nonprofits.

"The beauty of ICS," Stuckey says, "is that once you get enough people involved, you can do major work" without investing major time or funds.

Stuckey's core group of eight planners meets every week to monitor outreach activities. When a larger push is needed -- to organize a community forum or publicize a new Web video -- his command typically swells to two dozen public officials. Even with these modest inputs, the effort has managed to connect thousands of county residents with information and expert counsel to help them avoid, or at least navigate, the foreclosure process.

Sarasota County's Foreclosure Resource Assistance Network is one of many strategies states and local governments are using to mitigate the foreclosure crisis. A dozen states have passed laws requiring lenders to meet personally with homeowners before initiating foreclosure proceedings. At the local level, the concern has been more about managing the fallout. Cities and counties are concerned about the impact of the growing number of abandoned properties. And they're concerned about helping homeowners and renters to understand their options. In effect, cities and counties are scrambling to build ad-hoc social-safety nets.

It's been four years since the foreclosure wave crashed over the housing sector, submerging real estate values nationwide. Few experts expect to see much relief anytime soon. In November, the Mortgage Bankers Association reported that one in seven home loans were either in foreclosure or at least one payment past due -- the highest rate of foreclosure and delinquency recorded in the 37-year history of the survey. What's more, the association predicted that the situation will get worse before it improves. Hard-hit states such as California, Florida, Michigan and Nevada are bracing for the possibility of another round of foreclosures when adjustable-rate mortgages signed in 2005 reset this year.

Even states that have fared relatively well are experiencing localized pain. Tennessee, for example, largely missed the housing bubble of the previous decade, but is nevertheless seeing a lot of foreclosures now in and around Memphis. From 2000 to 2008, the number of foreclosures in the Memphis metro area surged from 4,609 to 12,926. Last year, according to the Shelby County assessor's office, there actually were more foreclosures and forced sales in the Memphis area than there were regular home sales.

The consequences of such widespread foreclosures can be calamitous. "When you see properties being foreclosed, and they become long-term vacancies, they can be subject to vandalism and pilfering," says Shelby County Sheriff Mark Luttrell. "It definitely has flipped neighborhoods from being stable to unstable."

Luttrell, a former federal prison warden elected sheriff in 2002, already had his hands full trying to improve conditions at the notorious 2,800-bed Shelby County jail. But he quickly found that he couldn't ignore the effects of the growing foreclosure crisis in the communities he serves. While it was clear that foreclosure had become a public safety issue, however, it wasn't clear to Luttrell what he could do about it.

There were two problems in particular that Luttrell found vexing. The first was the issue of renters. Many tenants were paying their rents and respecting their leases but being booted out of their homes because their landlords were facing foreclosure. The other problem was serving eviction notices, a duty that Tennessee law leaves to either the sheriff's department or private operators known as "process servers." In theory, private processors are barred from impersonating sheriff's deputies. However, in practice, says Luttrell, some "take it right up to the limit."

Last spring, Luttrell met Webb Brewer, the head of Memphis Area Legal Services. In short order, the two agreed that they could work together on these problems. Luttrell agreed to have his deputies hand out literature alerting residents to their rights under a new federal law called the "Helping Families Save Their Homes Act." The law protects renters by requiring at least 90 days' notice before a tenant in good standing can be evicted due to foreclosure. Luttrell also agreed that his department would handle calls from people with complaints and that those calls would be forwarded to Brewer's legal services team when appropriate.

"It's been low-budget," admits Luttrell, noting that most of the outreach has come through officers visiting libraries and community centers. Luttrell and Brewer also have held joint appearances on TV and done radio public announcements together. Their work hasn't reduced the rate of foreclosure -- that's beyond the power of most local governments to do. Instead, they've focused on making the foreclosure process more equitable.

That's a big goal of the foreclosure program Bob Stuckey works on in Florida, too. Sarasota County's efforts began with a push from Lee Haworth, the chief judge of Florida's 12th judicial circuit, which includes Sarasota County. As foreclosure cases began to clog the docket in Haworth's court, he began ordering that lenders talk with homeowners about alternatives to foreclosure. Later, he required that attorneys for lenders actually show up in court for foreclosure proceedings. The goal "is to make the system balanced," Haworth says. "I don't want it to favor one side or the other. It needs to be fair for both servers and owners."

Judge Haworth's initiatives attracted the attention of Sarasota County officials, who asked if they could help. That led to Stuckey's ICS working group. It also resulted in Haworth serving as the public face of the resource network. Haworth is particularly pleased by the way the county now helps people in distress locate legal advice and counsel. "The lawyers who are representing homeowners are becoming more and more successful in finding alternatives" to foreclosure, Haworth says.

Still, he says there's a long way to go. Ultimately, he thinks the law must be changed to allow judges to modify the terms of mortgages themselves. "I have to be completely honest," he continues. "I don't think we are achieving anywhere near the results I would like to see."

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