As City Mulls Action on Foreclosures, a Humane Detective Calls Off an Eviction

On Friday, a King County Sheriff’s detective arrived at the West Seattle home of Byron Barton to carry out an eviction. Barton can hardly speak and has been in a wheelchair after suffering a heart attack and stroke that occurred while his home was being foreclosed upon, according to Chris Genese of Washington CAN!, an advocacy group that today staged a press release in support of Barton and his wife Jean.

When the detective saw the shape Barton was in, he couldn’t go through with the eviction, according to Genese. Chalk one up for the Sheriff’s office, tasked with being the bad guy in the foreclosure process, but still on occasion willing to use its discretion. The detective in this case, hired in 1972, is the oldest member of the department but has managed to avoid burn out and hang on to his compassion, says Sheriff’s spokesperson DB Gates, who declined to provide the detective’s name until getting his permission.

Still, the detective merely bought Barton some time. He still risks getting kicked out of the home he and his wife bought in 2000, when the couple remodeled homes for a living, a business decimated by the recession. The house has already been sold at auction to a company called Triangle Property Development—illegally so, according to the Bartons’ lawyer, who claims in a lawsuit that the proper procedures were not followed. Their lender, JP Morgan Chase, will not comment on pending litigation, according to a spokesperson.

Washington CAN! used the press conference today not only to call attention to the Barton case but to what it says is the urgency of city action in helping homeowners who face foreclosure even through the recession has officially passed. “It’s been report and after report,” Genese says. “The consequences of inaction is that people like Byron Barton continue to lose their homes.”

The latest report on foreclosure trends and possible solutions came out just last week. Prepared for City Council by an interdepartmental team, it found a significant decline in the “notice of trustee sales,” which precede a foreclosure auction, since 2010. In that year, roughly 3,400 notices were recorded in Seattle. Last year, there were about 2,400, a still sizable number.

Some activists have been pushing the city to consider a radical approach: the use of “eminent domain,” which allows the government to seize property for the public good. In this scenario, which is being most actively explored by the city of Richmond, California, the government would refinance the homes they seized in order to lower homeowners’ mortgage payments and overall debt.

Seattle’s interdepartmental team recommended against this strategy in an earlier report, however, judging that it had “significant legal and financial implications.” The feds have said they don’t want Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac to do business in areas where eminent domain is a possibility, an earlier report, released in May, pointed out. What’s more, says City Council Nick Licata, “We are probably the strongest property rights state in the country.”

So the team has come around to recommending two options. One is an outreach program to vulnerable homeowners that would let them know about existing services, like foreclosure counseling and mediation made available through the state Foreclosure Fairness Act.

The second, pushed by Licata, is a strategy somewhat similar to eminent domain but that would involve private groups, rather than the city, purchasing properties and renegotiating terms. Groups in Oregon and Boston are doing just this, and Licata says he would like to bring people from there to meet with city officials and explain the process.

That’s obviously going to take some time—more time, no doubt, then even a very humane detective can offer the Bartons.

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