Panelist Sean T. Wallace, supervising housing counselor at University Legal Services; William Fitzgerald Jr., of Long and Foster Real Estate; attorney Sandy Bellamy Thomas; Benjamin Banneker Development Corporation head; and attorney Johnny Barnes discussed preventing foreclosure and evictions. (Photo by Shantella Y. Sherman)

It is not uncommon in the District to find investors surveying neighborhoods for abandoned, dilapidated, or empty houses. However, the practice of flipping entire communities from working and middle-class enclaves to over-priced luxury dwellings has reportedly lead to unscrupulous seizures of family homes through tax liens and overdue utility payments.

In the District of Columbia, Realty Trac’s October 2015 report shows a 100 percent increase in pre-foreclosure filings and a 66.7 percent spike in auctions. The 4.9 percent delinquency rate in D.C. ranks seventh among states that allow banks to foreclose without a judicial proceeding. And while some foreclosures have come as the result of delinquencies and by missed mortgage payments, many more have been the result of extravagant tax assessments or unpaid utilities – a reality one homeowner called “predatory.”

“For months my sister had someone slipping notes and leaflets onto her porch asking if her home was for sale. The very next tax cycle, she gets a notice that her home was valued to be worth more than a million dollars – making her taxes for the year, astronomical,” Ward 1 resident Trisha Lewis said. “When she couldn’t pay it, the house was placed on a tax auction list.” The property was turned back over to the family following lengthy negotiations and lawyer fees.

Hosted by Johnny Barnes, the self-described “people’s lawyer,” and his Living with the Law practice, along with the Benjamin Banneker Development Corporation, the two-day “Forum on Foreclosure: Preventing Homelessness and Eviction in Washington, D.C.” offered a platform to residents with questions and concerns about tax assessments, liens, foreclosures, and evictions.

“It takes lawyers and advocates fighting on behalf of the average citizen to end the abuses and behaviors associated with wrongfully seizing someone’s home,” Barnes told the AFRO. “You have to be vigilant and work together within your communities to ensure that there are both internal and external strategy in place.”

Participants discussed all manners of foreclosure, including the role of condominium boards, appeals, owner rights and responsibilities, and mediation processes.

National Congress of Black Women president and long-time Ward 6 resident E. Faye Williams attended the forum and said it was important to be informed about the housing and homeownership laws of the city. “The District is very fortunate to have someone like Johnny Barnes who cares as much as he does for people in the city prepared to advocate on behalf of residents losing their homes to foreclosure,” Williams told the AFRO. “He is working with roughly 3,000 people losing their homes, and if it is those 3,000 today, it could be any one of us tomorrow.”