A collaborative legal services project is ramping up efforts to help New Hampshire homeowners who are in jeopardy of losing their homes because of questionable lending and foreclosure practices by national banks.
Since the housing crisis began, thousands of Granite State residents have lost their homes, and more homes are on the auction block. The latest statistics from the NH Housing Finance Authority show 297 foreclosure deeds were recorded in December 2012, up 18 percent from the previous month. Though total foreclosures in 2012 were down 5 percent from 2011, the problems that caused the market crash and recession persist.
The NH Bar Association has joined forces with NH Legal Assistance and the Legal Advice and Referral Center to establish the joint NH Foreclosure Relief Project (FRP), which is funded by a portion of the stateís share of the national mortgage settlement. The project is designed to assist homeowners of all income levels who are facing foreclosure or foreclosure-related financial and legal problems.
Disputed foreclosure cases are already moving through superior court, homeowner counseling clinics are being scheduled around the state, and the NH Bar Center will host the first full-day attorney training seminar March 20, featuring faculty from the National Consumer Law Center and guest speakers NH Attorney General Michael Delaney and US District Court Judge Joseph Laplante.
"Everybody has been working really hard to build this project from scratch so that we can help New Hampshire homeowners who are facing foreclosure," said Ginny Martin, associate NHBA executive director for legal services.
NH Legal Assistance has tapped one of its most experienced attorneys, Stephanie Bray, to head up its part of the project and has hired a second attorney, Dennis Labbe, according to NHLA Executive Director John Tobin.
"We are taking cases, going to court for clients, and starting to get injunctions for foreclosures," Tobin said.
The NH Bar Association recently hired Vanessa Beauchesne, a former housing counselor with Neighborworks in Nashua, as FRP project coordinator. The Bar Association also has contracted with two experienced attorneys, Krista Atwater and Mary Stewart, to train and advise attorneys taking on foreclosure-related cases.
Working with LARC, which has created a special foreclosure hotline, the NHBA and NHLA have established case intake and acceptance protocols, as well as a biweekly schedule for reviewing and referring cases.
The first homeowner education clinic was to be held Feb. 19 at the Veterans Administration Medical Center in Manchester to offer help to veterans struggling with foreclosure-related problems.
Bray, who leads NHLAís role in the project, said itís rewarding to help individual homeowners, and perhaps eventually homeowners in general, fight against unfair practices.
Bray has experienced some early success with the cases in superior court, having recently won a temporary injunction in a case before Judge Larry Smukler. She argues in part that the lender in question, as the party in the mortgage contract with significantly more discretion, has a duty to act reasonably and in good faith. She bases this part of her argument on the 1989 NH Supreme Court decision in Centronics Corp v. Genicom Corp, penned by former US Supreme Court Justice David Souter.
"Itís making a big statement to use that duty of good faith to balance against what appears at first blush to be a line item on a balance sheet that says thou must pay," Bray said.
It probably wonít be long before these cases "percolate their way" up to the Supreme Court, she added, making it an exciting time to be working in this area of law in New Hampshire.
"It is amazing to me sometimes how people are just trudging and living every day and doing their best to make their obligations, and then one domino falls off Ė a divorce, someone gets sick, someone loses a job Ė and then itís a spiral," she said. "Iím pretty sure I speak for everyone in the project when I say itís really great to be able to help people and help get their lives back on track."