Maeve Elise Brown founded Oakland-based Housing and Economic Rights Advocates nine years ago after a long career representing the poor and disadvantaged in various nonprofit organizations.
The not-for-profit legal organization takes on lenders in key legal challenges and publishes consumer education reports that spell out homeowner rights under mortgage laws and during the foreclosure process and tenants rights when they face eviction. Current cases involve foreclosures, breaches of loan modification agreements and unfair debt collection. The group also provides training and runs workshops for other nonprofits and attorneys.
Brown spoke with this paper recently about the Bay Area's skyrocketing rents and home prices. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Q How did you get involved in advocating for homeowners and renters?
A I have been a public interest attorney for 25 years. When I went to law school, I wanted to use my skills to help people do better. That's always been in my heart. I opened up HERA because, after so many years, I was particularly drawn to elderly homeowners. What caught my eye and attention was how little they knew about how to protect themselves, and how vulnerable they are, to strangers and family or when something horrible was happening to their home.
I started a community development credit union in Oakland, which gave me the opportunity to learn about how regularly people were being locked out of basic financial services and overcharged. That had huge impact on my starting HERA in 2005.
Q There's been quite an uproar over housing costs in San Francisco and Oakland. What impact are high home prices and rents having on the Bay Area homeowners and renters you work with?
A The high cost on the rental side is driving former homeowners and current tenants out of their homes and far, far away from where they work, where they go to school, where they get medical care. It's a horrendous disaster. And I think it's one of the unintended consequences of a tremendous shift in what our market place looks like. It's really an environmental disaster as well. It fuels new construction on farmlands and wilderness areas that should be preserved, and it means people are driving two hours each way to get to work and other necessities. It is costing all of us as neighbors, even those who are able to hang on to where they live.
Q There are lots of theories about what's causing this, from tech workers squeezing out non-tech workers, to a shortage of new construction. What do you think is happening?
A There are some things many people don't know about. One is that investors and banks are preferring cash investors over regular folks with a mortgage loan, and they're selling a lot of the single family stock that was foreclosed on to these cash investors instead of selling to average folks who want to move in and contribute to the neighborhood. Another pressure is the fact that for quite some time, properties in foreclosure have been withheld from the market by financial institutions, I believe as a way to create an artificial price support by shrinking the supply of available housing to be purchased.
Q The banks might say they're overwhelmed.
A I don't believe it. There's got to be a financial reason. They are not in the business of sitting on property.
Q What is your agency trying to do about it?
A We are working with the California Reinvestment Coalition to both inform our federal regulators and ask them for help
Q What kind of help?
A I expect careful consideration of some of the concerns that we've raised. There certainly is a significant fair housing problem in play right now. Many of the properties being snapped up in bulk are in low and moderate income communities and communities of color. You have a vice put on some of the same communities that were victimized by the foreclosure crisis. The securitization of rental streams (bundling of rental properties and turning the rental stream into the source of income for investors) is also another thread that raises a deep concern. I have no personal problem over folks making a profit, that's great. But I am concerned that without any kind of controls in place, there will be no limit on how quickly rents will be raised, and there will be continued and vast displacement.
Q What are a couple of cases that stand out for you?
A A current one is a class action against Pro Solutions, a company that works on collections for homeowners associations. We're waiting to hear on a motion to dismiss. Another case that's really on my mind has to do with widows and orphans. We started finding a couple years ago that when somebody's loved one died, and the loved one was only one on the mortgage loan, the mortgage lender refused to accept payments from or even talk to the survivor and people were being foreclosed on. We have clients who are children inheriting property experiencing this, and women -- widows -- in this position. We are litigating a case about this in Placer County.
Q I have to ask. You speak two foreign languages fluently and are conversant in four others. How'd that happen?
A I guess I love talking to people. When I was in college I decided to study these languages. I was intrigued by Japanese, and took three years of it, and three years of Farsi.
Q New rules creating a "qualified mortgage" that tightens mortgage lending standards have taken effect this year. What impact are you seeing on home buyers?
A It's a little early to know what effects are going be. I think the rules are really good news for consumers. These are rules that require mortgage servicers to make sure that you have enough money to actually afford the loan. I have talked to so many consumers over the years who thought, 'Hey, if these guys lent me money I can afford it.' So I think it's great news.
Contact Pete Carey at (408) 920-5419. Follow him at Twitter.com/petecarey.
Current job: Executive Director, Housing and Economic Rights Advocates
Previous jobs: Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles, East Bay Community Law Center, National Housing Law Project
Education: B.A and J.D., both from the University of California at Los Angeles
five things to know about maeve elise brown
1. She loves figure skating and was a figure skater when she was a young girl.
2. She is fluent in Spanish and French and conversant in Japanese, Farsi, Italian and German.
3. She is a martial artist.
4. She grew up in a rural town in Los Angeles County and has a passion for the land as well as for the city.
5. She teaches a course she created on homeownership and mortgage lending at UC Berkeley's School of Law.