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Bank settlement fuels work in troubled neighborhoods

Local agency got $1.4M for improvements, photographer chronicles progress

When the Miami Valley Fair Housing Center wanted to show how it was using money from a bank settlement to improve homes in troubled neighborhoods, it turned to a nationally known but locally based photographer.

Andy Snow is documenting how money from a historic settlement with Wells Fargo Bank is being spent, said Jim McCarthy, president and chief executive of the Miami Valley Fair Housing Center.

“Properties are being fixed and neighborhoods are being improved — and that’s the key,” said Snow, a longtime local photographer whose work has appeared in Time and Business Week magazines, the Wall Street Journal and many other publications.

Snow took photos from the ground, on ladders and sometimes with a remote-controlled drone. He often took photos and videos of homes before work began, and after work was completed.

“Often (the difference) was dramatic,” he said.

So far, Snow has photographed nearly 30 homes, often with happy homeowners in the shots.

“(Snow’s) talent has enabled us to put a face on this project,” said Amy Radachi, CEO of Rebuilding Together Dayton, one of the local organizations involved in rehabilitating the homes.

Homes are getting new roofs, wheelchair ramps and other improvements.

“They’re going in and they’re doing repairs for seniors and for others in two targeted neighborhoods — 45417 and 45426,” McCarthy said. “We picked one ZIP code that had been heavily, most severely impacted by foreclosures inside the city of Dayton and one that was inside Montgomery County but outside the city.”

In 2013, the National Fair Housing Alliance announced a $27 million settlement with Wells Fargo over the treatment of unoccupied homes owned by the bank. The local fair housing center, which is part of a national alliance, received $1.4 million of that amount.

The year before, the alliance had filed a complaint against Wells Fargo with the federal government, alleging that the bank had neglected Real Estate-Owned properties in predominantly black and Latino neighborhoods. REO properties are owned by lenders and banks after unsuccessful foreclosure sale attempts.

The issue of how banks care — or fail to care — for properties on their portfolios has long simmered in the recession’s wake.

When empty homes are left unmaintained the effects are devastating, said Lisa Rice, executive vice president of the Washington-based National Fair Housing Alliance. Minor issues can become major over time, especially where houses are vulnerable to the elements in cold or warm climates. Pipes can burst in cold weather. Mold can form in warm weather.

“These homes need to be maintained,” Rice said.

For banks and their investors, maintaining properties simply makes business sense, she said. Better-maintained houses are more likely to be sold and more likely to be sold at a higher price, she said.

“That’s the best solution for a neighborhood,” she said. “We’re very proud of this settlement.”

Miami Valley Fair Housing’s $1.4 million went to organizations such as Habitat for Humanity, Rebuilding Together Dayton and People Working Cooperatively to complete the home improvements, McCarthy said.

Radachi said scheduling Snow’s photos — so shots were taken before and after work — was tricky, but worthwhile.

“Andy has been phenomenal to work with,” she said.

So far, more than 30 homes have been improved, McCarthy said.

One cluster of properties is in Trotwood, another in Dayton. Miami Valley Fair Housing selected those areas and then issued a request for proposals seeking contractors and organizations to do the work.

Another benefit from the settlement money: Twenty-three people have become first-time homebuyers, buying in those areas with down payment assistance money garnered from the settlement, McCarthy said.

“Lives have been changed,” said Snow.

The center also funded the creation of a “tot lot” in the 45417 ZIP code, taking a vacant lot and turning it into a playground, McCarthy said.

Rice said the Wells Fargo settlement captured the attention of other banks and lenders. In that sense, she said, it was historic.

“It was very groundbreaking,” Rice said. “Wells Fargo changed its policies and practices around the maintenance of bank-owned properties.”

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