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Common Ground’s $30 Million Winning Strategy

Advocacy campaign for struggling Milwaukee homeowners took on Nationstar

Sep. 8, 2015
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In our era of political polarization and highly negative partisan attacks, it’s rare to see community advocates who cheerfully—even gleefully—describe their years-long campaign to help struggling Milwaukeeans.

But Southeastern Wisconsin Common Ground’s Keisha Krumm and Jennifer O’Hear were all smiles when talking about their part in securing $30 million settlement between mortgage servicer Nationstar Mortgage LLC and the City of Milwaukee.

Common Ground—a nonpartisan, primarily faith-based issue-advocacy group with 40,000 members in the Greater Milwaukee area—had been working to help homeowners caught in the mortgage meltdown of the Great Recession, resulting in settlements with five large banks.

But the new deal with Nationstar is especially significant for Common Ground.

The mortgage giant’s chairman of the board of directors is Wesley Edens, one of the Milwaukee Bucks’ new owners. The Bucks’ new ownership group was seeking $250 million in public funds for a new arena at the same time Common Ground was keeping track of the city’s foreclosed and abandoned homes, some of which were Nationstar properties.

Common Ground saw an opportunity to match the Bucks’ request with a request of their own. If Edens wanted the public to invest in the Bucks, then Edens’ Nationstar, with a market value of $1.7 billion, needed to invest in Milwaukee, too.

“We didn’t win on this because we were morally right,” explained Krumm, Common Ground’s lead organizer. “We won on it because we had leverage.”

 

A Creative Campaign

Common Ground’s Nationstar campaign is a classic case of grassroots advocates fighting the right fight at the right time, of pushing from the outside so that insiders would take notice and do the right thing.

“We had the moral high ground,” said Krumm. “There was no way that our Common Council could bring a vote for the arena money from our city without dealing with the Nationstar issue. We were not going to sit idly by and let that happen.”

The organization had been focusing on abandoned and neglected homes in the Sherman Park neighborhood for about four years and Krumm said during their research on the mortgage issuers realized that one name that kept popping up over and over was Nationstar. After a little more digging it turned out that the company’s board chair was Wes Edens, a new majority owner of the Bucks.

Common Ground realized they had a bombshell on their hands, Krumm said. They also knew that the Nationstar-Bucks link could not only raise awareness of the mortgage crisis, but of the group’s Fair Play Campaign, which sought a public investment in the city’s crumbling playgrounds and athletic fields as part of the Bucks deal.

“Initially we wanted to see a broader investment than just Downtown so there would truly be some benefit for the common good with this public money,” said O’Hear, head of the Fair Play Campaign.

They held press conferences at a particularly troubled Nationstar property and they called on Edens and corporate executives to come to Milwaukee to “clean up their mess.”

When Common Ground didn’t get a satisfactory response, they bought stock in Nationstar so that they could attend the company’s annual shareholder meeting in Dallas in May to plead their case. They got a few minutes to speak from their seats and secured a promise from President and CEO Jay Bray to come to Milwaukee to address the problem.

Bray did in fact come to Milwaukee, but Common Ground’s proposal to support struggling homeowners was rebuffed by the company, Krumm and O’Hear said.

At the same time Common Ground was putting pressure on Nationstar to help out its Milwaukee customers and meeting with Common Council members to raise awareness of Nationstar properties in their districts, Mayor Tom Barrett and Common Council President Michael Murphy were negotiating a settlement with the company’s executives.

Sensing that their window of opportunity would close once the city signed off on its portion of the Bucks deal, in mid-August Common Ground turned up the heat. They cleaned up the site of their first press conference, sold by Nationstar to another mortgage holder and gutted by a fire, then put the trash in boxes and mailed it to Edens at the Bucks’ offices.

About two weeks later, just before the council was set to debate its part in the broader Bucks arena deal, Barrett and Murphy announced the $30 million settlement to provide real help to Milwaukeeans who are underwater on their homes.

Under the deal, Nationstar agreed to provide up to $30 million over three years to modify mortgages of the company’s Milwaukee customers; give $500,000 over three years to the city’s Strong Home Loans Program for underwater homeowners who seek loans for home repairs; conduct three face-to-face meetings annually for three years with customers who are struggling to make their mortgage payments; donate as many foreclosed Nationstar properties as possible to the city for rehabilitation; and to continue working with Milwaukee institutions to help the city’s homeowners.

In a statement announcing the settlement, Barrett said, “Home foreclosures will be avoided with new modification agreements, and more owners will receive low-interest loans to help finance critical repairs to their homes.”

Nationstar’s spokesman declined to comment on Common Ground for this article.

Barrett had invited Common Ground to the press conference announcing the deal, seemingly acknowledging their part in raising awareness of Nationstar’s role in Milwaukee’s foreclosure crisis.

“That was a really great moment for our organization and our leaders because it was incredibly gratifying that our mayor and the president of the Common Council aggressively negotiated on our behalf and we got a good deal,” Krumm said. “We got more than $30 million that’s going to go to the city and go to homeowners.”

Krumm and O’Hear are savoring their victory but they aren’t going to rest on their laurels. Common Ground is still asking for an investment in the city’s playgrounds and athletic fields as part of the Bucks deal. If that doesn’t happen, it plans to put that issue front and center in next spring’s municipal elections, when the mayor and all of the Common Council members will be on the ballot.  

“We’ll have a very specific ask for what we think should be invested in the neighborhoods totaling up to around $80 million, which is what we think it is going to cost the city to invest in the Bucks,” O’Hear said.

And, of course, Common Ground will continue working on issues that are close to its members’ hearts for the benefit of all Milwaukeeans, whether it’s the organization’s health care co-op or reducing unemployment in the city’s hardest-hit neighborhoods.

“When there’s a political will to do things for the greater good it can happen,” Krumm said. “We’re committed to creating the political will for the greater good.”

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