Indiana University SPEA Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy University of Pennsylvania AIR American University

Panel Paper: Capturing Financial Realities in Real Time: Using in-Depth Interviews during the Foreclosure Crisis in Boston

Friday, November 13, 2015 : 9:30 AM
Brickell Prefunction (Hyatt Regency Miami)

*Names in bold indicate Presenter

Hannah Thomas, Abt Associates, Inc.
Policy-makers often face real time policy challenges about which little or no data exist. Qualitative research can offer initial and deep insights into an emerging problem to quickly gain a handle on ways that policy could respond, and to prime larger scale data collection efforts. The example of the City of Boston and how it responded to an initial rise in foreclosures in 2006 demonstrates the ways that qualitative research can be used to inform policy response to an emerging policy challenge.

Faced with a rise in foreclosures in 2006, in 2007 the City of Boston hired a researcher to better understand what was causing families to go into foreclosure.  Since data about the causes of foreclosures at that time was very thin, the study design focused on exploring what was happening for families who were in foreclosure through in depth interviews. The goal was to provide policy makers with real time information to design better responses in prevention measures and consider any changes in their prevention strategies. The 37 in-depth interviews with families in foreclosure in the City of Boston reviewed not just the events that led to foreclosure but also how they had entered into homeownership, details of their mortgage origination, current servicing, and their financial profile.  A complex picture emerged of families who found themselves in expensive (high interest) mortgages, with few financial assets to draw on experiencing a crisis event (divorce, house fire, unemployment, illness) that was compounded by a lack of servicer response in helping to mitigate the event. The interviews also revealed that families were struggling to face the reality of their financial situation due to the strong meanings and attachments they had to their home and homeownership.   Other important factors were also revealed through the research, such as the City’s limited outreach to the Spanish speaking community that was also heavily impacted by the foreclosure crisis.

Once the research was completed for the city, policymakers took the information into account as they designed their ongoing counseling programs partnering with non-profits. The research team was also in conversation with researchers at the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston, and the interviews provided the basis for the development of further research there based on more quantitative research. The paper will review the study findings, and the methodological approach used, exploring the strengths and weaknesses of this approach for policy makers in responding to a current policy challenge.