Angry homeowners packed a community meeting in Bowie on Saturday, demanding officials probe the foreclosure and housing crisis that has decimated wealth in Prince George’s County and find more ways to help residents still reeling from financial losses.
While the rest of the region has seen property values bounce back since the recession, Prince George’s continues to suffer the effects of a mortgage crisis that devastated neighborhoods in the nation’s wealthiest majority-African American jurisdiction.
The emergency meeting was organized by the People for Change Coalition, a local advocacy group focused on developing minority businesses, among other things.
“We’re supposed to be the most affluent and educated” black community in the country, said Sandy Pruitt, the coalition’s executive director. But a recent Washington Post investigation found that Prince George’s families have lost an enormous amount of wealth, compared with other homeowners in the region.
The meeting, which at times was contentious, called for the formation of a task force to investigate the causes of the situation and identify solutions to help thousands of Prince George’s homeowners who have fallen behind or are underwater in their mortgages.
Todd Blanks, 49, bought his Upper Marlboro home at the height of the housing bubble for about $100,000 more than he says it was worth. The IT specialist has watched the value of his home plummet and says he believes it and others like it are not receiving fair assessments.
Nick Charles, an Air Force veteran who ran unsuccessfully for a seat in the House of Delegates in last year’s Democratic primary, said appraisers are part of the problem.
“When you have people outside coming into a community to appraise homes where they don’t live, it’s like having someone criticize your parenting without having any knowledge of what goes on inside the home,” he said.
After serving in the military, Charles bought a home in Forestville, the inner-Beltway community where he grew up. His home is valued at a fourth of the price at which it was purchased.
“The fact is our homes are being valued by people who need to be held accountable,” he said. Investors, meanwhile, have flocked to the county to buy dirt-cheap real estate.
One of the more popular ideas expressed in the meeting was to urge lawmakers to impose a moratorium on housing construction until the county’s glut of foreclosed and bank-owned homes is reduced.
“If you’ve got inventory, why keep building?” said Glenn Ivey, a former Prince George’s state’s attorney whose wife, Jolene Ivey, is a former delegate who ran for lieutenant governor in the Democratic primary.
The proposal likely would face strong opposition from developers, some residents noted, and could be difficult to enforce for the many projects that are already underway.
Glenn Ivey suggested that homeowners try to help turn around negative perceptions of Prince George’s by reaching out to the faith community and, for parents, becoming more involved in public schools. Improving the county’s reputation, he said, could lead to higher property assessments. “We’re going to have to be twice as good on our public schools,” he said.
Aisha Braveboy, a lawyer, former delegate and unsuccessful candidate for attorney general, suggested that the county government could help pay down mortgages. That would keep families in their homes, paying taxes and maintaining properties that could later be sold at decent prices, she said. “We can’t afford to lose our communities, lose homeowners and lose wealth.”
The idea resonated with Lucius McInnis, an Upper Marlboro homeowner who estimated that his property has depreciated by nearly a third of its 2006 purchase price. He has never missed a mortgage payment, he said, but feels financially underwater and could use some relief.
“What about the people who have never been late? Why can’t help be given to them?” McInnis said. “Reduce the interest or help pay down the principal. . . . I don’t understand why it’s so hard.”
Braveboy said another problem is that too many properties across the county are bank- or lender-owned and are deteriorating while waiting to be sold. “Homes in black communities have leaky roofs and broken windows,” Braveboy said. “We need to make sure banks are maintaining these properties.”
Homeowners discussed a variety of ideas, including building a fund or investor group to help neighbors; demanding more equitable distribution of funds from a national mortgage settlement; and legislation to change homeowner-association practices that are deemed unfair. The meeting was also an opportunity for neighbors to learn about the resources available to them through existing state and county programs for homeowners.
For Yvonne Sneed, though, the most important outcome was the mobilization.
The Post article “awakened those who were sleeping,” the Upper Marlboro resident said. “Now, it’s action time.”