Creating diverse communities with Bethany Sanchez
Bethany Sanchez says she has always been interested in urban issues. Through her experience working with nonprofits across the country, she has become a nationally-respected resource in the area of housing and community development.
Like most college graduates with dreams to create real change in their communities, Sanchez started out small. After graduating from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, she worked as bookkeeper for the Eastside Housing Action Committee (ESHAC), a housing action group originally organized to foster tenant action against unresponsive landlords in the Riverwest neighborhood. Sanchez was promoted to a counselor and eventually director of the Neighborhood Improvement Project, which provided free home repairs to low-income elderly homeowners.
In 1987 Sanchez planted roots in southern California, where she would spend the next decade working as the housing development director for a community-based nonprofit, and later as executive director for a coalition of nonprofits called the San Diego Housing Federation. There, she focused her career aspirations to include working for quality, affordable housing and community-focused economic development for lower income households.
After visiting over a dozen different countries on an 18-month budget trip with her husband, Rodney, in the late 1990s, Sanchez was ready to get back to doing what she does best — and doing it in her old stomping grounds of Milwaukee. She was hired as program director at the Urban Economic Development Association (UEDA) of Wisconsin, where she began to take an interest in more proactive solutions to fair housing, including professional training and policy advocacy.
News of her innovative work in revitalizing Wisconsin communities soon spread around Milwaukee, and in 2001 Sanchez was recruited by the Metro Milwaukee Fair Housing Council (MMFHC), a nonprofit which “promotes fair housing throughout the State of Wisconsin by combating illegal housing discrimination and by creating and maintaining racially and economically integrated housing patterns.” In this role, Sanchez created a new program to proactively address housing discrimination by combining outreach and education about fair housing and fair lending with fair lending policy analysis and advocacy.
Sanchez created MMFHC’s Strategies to Overcome Predatory Practices (STOPP) Intitiative, which assists victims of what is known as predatory lending and also provides counseling and resources.
Predatory lending occurs when lenders take advantage of borrowers by selling loan products that are unsuitable for the borrower, which Sanchez says are most often subprime, high-cost loans to refinance a home, consolidate debt or make home improvements.
According to MMFHC, these loans become predatory when the interest rates and fees go far beyond what is reasonably justified, often in order to compensate for imperfect credit. Loans are also classified as predatory when they contain conditions that trap borrowers into debt, do not take into account the borrower’s ability to repay the loan, or violate fair lending laws by targeting women, minorities or communities of color.
“It is most often a lack of understanding and fear of the other,” says Sanchez, referring to the disconnect that often consumes problematic relationships between borrower and lender.
Though she is an invaluable asset for those seeking fair lending and community reinvestment at a national level, Sanchez focuses most of her day-to-day attention on the issues facing home-seekers and homeowners in Milwaukee. Directing MMFHC’s Fair Lending Program, Sanchez oversees the direct fair lending and foreclosure counseling MMFHC staff provide to homeowners.
In addition to handling individual cases on a free, confidential basis, the Fair Lending Program also takes a number of proactive measures to educate the community. For example, it promotes fair lending and foreclosure prevention and seeks to eradicate predatory lending through a community coalition known as the Milwaukee Homeownership Consortium, also known as Take Root Milwaukee, whose purpose is to “preserve and promote sustainable, diverse neighborhoods by encouraging and maintaining homeownership.”
Working in partnership with of dozens of banks, mediation programs, and nonprofit housing counseling agencies like MMFHC, Take Root Milwaukee was launched in 2010 in partnership with Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett and works to promote fair housing practices and advocate public policy.
By combining homeownership preservation with homeownership creation, Take Root Milwaukee supports efforts to sustain homeownership and stabilize Milwaukee neighborhoods.
Sanchez chairs the group’s Foreclosure Outreach Workgroup, and is a member of its Resource and Oversight Committee. Through Take Root Milwaukee and other partnerships, she works to educate and assist consumers and the organizations that serve them. She also organizes foreclosure education events where borrowers can receive free assistance from counselors on the spot and can talk to a lender face-to-face, which Sanchez says is often a major issue for borrowers.
Sanchez believes education is key and that these events make the process much easier for those seeking to fix their loans.
Sanchez is also working with other nonprofits on the national scale in order to further her goal of ridding Milwaukee and cities like it of this issue completely. She serves as chair of the board of the National Community Reinvestment Coalition, a coalition of over 600 nonprofit community developers from all over the nation.
“We bring the grassroots perspective to bankers and lenders,” she says. “We discuss where needs of our communities are not being met and ways they can help. We find common ground.”
It is this common ground Sanchez seeks in all her endeavors, whether it be resolving an issue with a homeowner, keeping powerful banks in check or helping Milwaukeeans find a place to call home.