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July 30, 2008

Fighting foreclosure - Legal Aid helps those on the verge of losing their homes

Like so many Americans in these days of bursting market bubbles, Jackie and Larry Partee’s American dream is turning into a nightmare. 

After years of apartment living, the couple finally bought a home, moving into a stone house off Poplar Level Road with their 10-year-old son Dominick just over a year ago.

Earlier this month, they received a foreclosure notice in the mail.

“It’s like the ‘Twilight Zone,’ and we haven’t woke up out of it yet,” says Jackie Partee, whose family fell behind on mortgage payments while she was out of work recovering from surgery. Their mortgage company refused to accept reduced payments, and now they’re facing foreclosure.

But rather than give up their home without a fight, the Partee family is seeking help from Louisville’s Legal Aid Society, which provides legal services to low-income families. Legal Aid recently received a $25,000 grant from the Louisville Bar Foundation to help fund its Foreclosure Prevention Project. In the past year, more than 250 individuals facing foreclosure have turned to Legal Aid, which is serving about three times more foreclosure clients compared to several years ago.

But unlike many homeowners faced with foreclosure, the Partees sought assistance early in the process, which is exactly what more people need to do, according to Stewart Pope, advocacy director for Legal Aid.

“A lot of people kind of give up when they get the notice. They don’t realize that there are options out there for them,” says Pope. “The earlier we get them, the better the chance we can keep them in their home.”

In addition to local assistance provided by organizations like Legal Aid, help is available on the national level, most recently in the form of a $300 billion housing rescue bill passed by the Senate last week. The legislation is designed to help homeowners avoid foreclosure, and to support the mortgage powerhouses Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, who together back almost half the nation’s mortgages. 

“This is really a giant piece of legislation, and the first really significant federal response to help the borrowers,” says Cathy Hinko, executive director of the Metropolitan Housing Coalition. “We’ve already had a federal response to help the lenders, to help the professionals who screwed up … and now we finally have some help for the homeowners, the people who really are the victims of the professionals.” 

Various nonprofit housing agencies are working to mitigate the foreclosure boom in Louisville, with the help of city, state and federal dollars. Earlier this year, for example, the Housing Partnership Inc. received almost $1 million in federal grant money to help local homeowners save their homes.

The number of foreclosures in Jefferson County ballooned from 437 in 1996 to more than 2,100 in 2004, exceeding 3,000 last year, according to numbers provided by the Metropolitan Housing Coalition. That’s a staggering increase of more than 700 percent in just over a decade.

In 2005, the housing coalition analyzed the numbers and determined most foreclosures were happening in urban, predominantly black, neighborhoods. But the problem has since become more widespread.

“Two years later they were all over Jefferson County,” Hinko says. “In 2007, it had spread like a virus everywhere.” 

Photo by Christopher Hall: Dominick, Larry and Jackie Partee at their home off Poplar Level Road.
Photo by Christopher Hall: Dominick, Larry and Jackie Partee at their home off Poplar Level Road.

And the national outlook has only gotten worse.

A recent report by RealtyTrac — which markets foreclosed homes — says that in the second quarter, foreclosures were up 14 percent from the previous quarter, and 121 percent from the first quarter of 2007. 

It’s a forecast that’s become a reality for people like the Partee family, who are confused, scared and desperate.

“We just want to keep our home,” says Jackie Partee, sitting with her family at their dining room table. “Nobody wants to get put out on the street.”

Her husband, Larry, echoes those grim concerns. “It’s been a living hell,” he says.