‘This is as bad as I’ve ever seen it’

Posted Feb. 26, 2009, at 10:36 p.m.

Judd Esty-Kendall has been providing legal counsel to low-income Mainers for 25 years, helping people through evictions, foreclosures and other financial emergencies.

“This is as bad as I’ve ever seen it,” he said in a recent interview.

Indeed, a look at recent numbers is frightening.

Penobscot County Sheriff Glenn Ross said his deputies issued 1,066 forcible entry and detainer orders — official paperwork used for evictions — in 2008, an increase of 211 over the previous year, or about 20 percent. He doesn’t have numbers yet for the first part of this year, but said it’s likely to keep rising.

“We’re trending upward, but it’s consistent with trends across the country,” Ross said, adding that he had to enlist more reserve deputies for civil duties such as eviction notices.

Home foreclosures are tougher to track, but some data is available. In Bangor District Court, there were 250 foreclosure filings for the fiscal year ending June 30, 2008, an increase of more than 50 percent over the 2007 fiscal year.

According to RealtyTrac, an online seller of foreclosed properties, Penobscot County has the highest percentage of foreclosed homes of any Maine county. For January 2009, 65 properties were foreclosed in Penobscot County, or one in every 1,087 homes. Statewide, there were 308 foreclosures in January, according to RealtyTrac, and 1,721 active foreclosures total.

For the first five weeks of 2009, Pine Tree Legal Assistance and the Volunteer Lawyers Project have opened 91 foreclosure cases statewide. During that same period in 2008, there were 40 cases and, in 2007, only five.

The foreclosure statistics from the court, RealtyTrac and the cases handled by Pine Tree Legal overlap, but they signify a serious problem. Esty-Kendall, who is an attorney with Pine Tree Legal, said staff members’ time has been devoted almost exclusively to what he calls housing emergencies.

“Repeatedly over the fall and winter, we’ve restricted our intake to emergencies or people who are in danger of being out on the street,” he said.

Asked whether Greater Bangor has hit bottom, Esty-Kendall was reluctant to speculate.

“I was in eviction court [recently], and it wasn’t as crowded as it has been, which was encouraging,” he said. “But I hesitate to predict whether there will be harder times to come.”

A handful of legislative efforts in Maine have sought to ease the burden of possible foreclosures. At least four bills have been filed that aim to help protect homeowners, either by extending deadlines in foreclosure proceedings, adopting a policy by which tenants are notified in the event their building is foreclosed, or other changes. Those bills will be taken up during this legislative session, but there’s no guarantee they will become law.

Additionally, President Obama announced recently a $75 billion plan to help homeowners who are in danger of being foreclosed.

The problem: Few of these initiatives address people who already have lost their homes, only people hoping to avoid foreclosures or evictions. Esty-Kendall said the housing crisis is broader than that.

“The other side of this is lack of space in shelters,” Esty-Kendall said. “Some have extremely long waiting lists. We’ve seen people doubling up with friends, people living with relatives. It’s bad.”

Waiting lists for subsidized housing programs, such as Section 8, are often even longer, he said.

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