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For Struggling Milwaukee Families, A Legal Lifeline

When the first surge of home foreclosures began in the mid-2000s, it threatened the stability of several Milwaukee neighborhoods. Multiple “for sale” signs suddenly appearing on a single block was not uncommon.

Neighbors and local leaders mobilized. The Legal Aid Society of Milwaukee brought its decades of expertise in fighting predatory lending and fraudulent mortgage practices to the effort. With $50,000 in Helen Bader Foundation grant support, Legal Aid created a mediation program to help lenders and residents come to a mutually beneficial agreement after a foreclosure was filed. The goal was to help longtime residents stay in their homes and maintain the fabric of their neighborhoods.

According to Legal Aid’s executive director Tom Cannon, the majority of cases didn’t fit the media’s typical narrative. These were not overextended young buyers or property flippers. In fact, the program served a large number of older adults and other longtime residents who had fallen victim to fraudulent refinancing schemes.

“The salespeople came to homeowners and offered to lower their interest rates,” Cannon said. “But buried in the fine print, it was truly a fraud.” The foreclosure mediation program helped residents work out hundreds of deals over the years, and was hailed as a model for other cities struggling with foreclosures. Legal Aid shared its lessons across Wisconsin by holding seminars for judges on the foreclosures taking place in their own communities. Working on the issue nationally, its staffers have testified before Congress and the Federal Trade Commission on the disproportionate impact foreclosures have had on older adults.

The Foundation has been a longtime Legal Aid supporter, providing more than $1.3 million in total grants. The relationship began with Helen Bader’s own belief in the agency’s impact, as seen during her work as a social work student with Legal Aid’s clients.

The core of the Foundation’s support has been for Legal Aid’s Civil Division, which handles more than 2,000 cases each year. Among other services, the division offers one-on-one services for a variety of legal needs that spike when the economy slumps: evictions, bankruptcy, and increasingly, identity theft. Legal Aid’s two other divisions also serve critical segments of the community through Family Court and Children’s Court services, as well as programs that are tailored to people with mental health needs.

Building on its work with individuals, Legal Aid conducts class-action suits on behalf of lower-income Milwaukeeans. At the statewide level, it also coordinates legislative efforts to addresses inadequacies in the legal system that affect more than 600,000 low-income Wisconsinites.

“Legal Aid is serving people in need who have no other way to assert their legal rights,” said Cannon. “When we actively enhance their access to representation, it ensures that justice is available to all of us.”