Ten commandments of real estate: Professor helps law students get to 'CORE' of housing matter

By Paul Janczewski

Legal News

Since the early 1990s, Florise Neville-Ewell has taken the role of protector and adviser for people who had mortgage problems, questions about real estate issues, or simply wanted to know how to achieve the American dream of home ownership and not be taken advantage of.

Today, as an associate professor at Cooley Law School who teaches contracts and ethics, Neville-Ewell has established a student group called "10CORE" that is working in several segments of a community to assist people in reaching that American dream, and helping in other ways, too.

Neville-Ewell, a Chicago native, received both her undergraduate and law degrees from Yale. She began her law career as a law clerk for U.S. District Court Judge Julian Cook Jr., then returned to Chicago, where she worked at a law firm and married a judge, Edward Ewell. Returning to Michigan, she worked at a law firm and taught property and real estate finance at Wayne State Law School.

She then worked as general counsel for the Detroit Housing Commission, and as chief of contracts for the City of Detroit Law Department. While working in private practice, Neville-Ewell was asked to get involved in a case in which a number of companies defrauded thousands of would-be homeowners.

The company, and its affiliated businesses, had purchased numerous houses and entered into land contracts with prospective homeowners, telling them they would repair their credit and help them get loans. The guilty companies instead jacked up the house prices nearly three times, put multiple liens on the properties, and left the unsuspecting hopeful homeowners high and dry.

"These individual families thought they were in the process of becoming homeowners, but, to the contrary, there was nothing on record to suggest they had any interest," Neville-Ewell said. "As a result, they not only lost their home, and the American dream of home ownership, but they didn't have any vested interest at all."

She said the duped families kept no records, so they could not prove they had paid anything. The U.S. Attorney eventually indicted a number of the bogus company's members, but the scam left Neville-Ewell shaken.

"I knew that if they had understood some of the basics on how they could gain information on these companies, or gone to the Register of Deeds to confirm what was happing, they couldn't have been defrauded," she said. "And it really hurt my heart that we were not able to fix the problem."

Neville-Ewell also worked as an attorney for a number of nonprofit organizations, churches and other programs involved in residential housing and commercial real estate development. But she wanted to do more to prevent things like that from happening again.

"It crumbled my spirit because as an attorney, my obligation is to help people, and I felt completely helpless," Neville-Ewell said.

So she decided to do something about it.

Getting sponsorship from Comerica Bank, Neville-Ewell aired a "hot tips" segment on mortgage issues. She also worked with publications from Charter One Bank and a Michigan publisher to write a series of articles on mortgage issues. Using documents used in mortgage transactions, she would walk the reader through key components of the document, what to know and how to understand it.

"This was my attempt to make sure no one else lost access to the American dream," she said.

Finally, a letter she received from a family looking for help in the homeownership process prompted her to write a "Top Ten List" of things they needed to know, and 10CORE was born, the 10 Commandments of Real Estate.

"The list wasn't everything, but a place they needed to begin," Neville-Ewell said.

She made sure to also tell them that besides a basic understanding of the process, they would need a trusted attorney. The list was so successful and oft-requested, she would tailor the list to the needs of her audience, both ones she reached through print, and those she spoke to in person as groups.

"It gave them a nice checklist, and we all work well off of checklists," she said.

After leaving Wayne State as a professor, Neville-Ewell continued with trying to educate as many people as possible on real estate matters, and then Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans. She saw people leaving their homes and having no idea how they were going to make sure they didn't lose their properties. Looking for a new way to educate people, Neville-Ewell turned to the Internet.

"Not only to reach my community, but every community, because at the end of the day, we're all affected," she said.

She began to design a website to educate homeowners, investors, non profit developers and others, with easy-to-read and understand information for specific groups, when John Nussbaumer, associate dean at Cooley Law School's Auburn Hills campus, reached out to her to get back into teaching. She told Nussbaumer that she had a deep-seated need to complete her project, and he told her that if she came to Cooley, he would find a way to incorporate that into her job. Eventually, a number of students who were exposed to her idea loved it.

"That is so typical of the sentiment of our faculty and students that makes this place so unique and special," Neville-Ewell said of Cooley, its staff and students. "They said 'If this means that we can help and contribute to the resolution of this problem, we're in.'"

And the 10CORE Law Society Student Organization was born at Cooley.

The students and Neville-Ewell not only took her idea and ran, but it was also expanded into three committees with a common goal of educating the public about relevant real estate issues. A scholarly writing committee has law school students act as helpers for practicing lawyers in writing articles for the website. A town hall committee is responsible for reaching large numbers of people with presentations geared to that group's needs. And if that group is Hispanic, Arabic, or whatever, the students and professionals, working with community organizations, government officials and recognized experts can provide that information in whatever language is necessary. And finally, a computer donation committee looks for companies to donate computers to nonprofit organizations and other groups for people to use who have no access to computers.

"Our three committees have one central goal," Neville-Ewell said. "To make sure our efforts are directed where it belongs."

She added that the 10CORE program also encourages lawyers and law students to recognize the importance of pro bono work, and gives the students mentoring with real attorneys.

Robert Hamor, the student president of 10CORE, said it's their way of giving back to the community.

"We're facing a foreclosure crisis, and we either get involved or let it pass us by," he said. "We learn in law school to help out and hope we do a little bit of good in our community."

Deon Browning, 10CORE's vice president of computer donations committee, said it's important for everyone to have access to a computer during the mortgage crisis.

"Trying to get people educated, and keeping them educated, is something that we feel will reduce some of the risk of that happening again, and to reduce some of the impact that we're seeing now, he said.

Sarah Thomas, vice president of the scholarly writing committee, said working with attorneys on articles for the website is a great thing for the public.

"Articles on the Internet now are really long, and filled with legal jargon, making it hard to understand, and we're trying to shorten the articles, make them more easily accessible, and easier to understand," Thomas said.

Bobby Jean Bartlett, vice president of the Oral Advocacy, or town hall outreach committee, said it's important to reach the affected segment of society, tailor the information to their needs, and deliver it in whatever language is needed.

"The reasons people are losing their homes is because they're just not educated on the laws, and this is our way of showing that, with this information, you may not have to lose your home," Bartlett said.

Neville-Ewell is reluctant to take full credit for her idea, and talks about thanking so many people and groups it would take another story to get it all in. But she has been recognized by others for her efforts.

She was recently selected by President Barack Obama's Financial Fraud Enforcement Task Force to participate as a panelist at a Mortgage Fraud Summit. And in February, Neville-Ewell and several 10CORE students gave a presentation at the American Bar Association meeting in Atlanta on the impact of the foreclosure crisis on communities of color.

"It was powerful," she said of their presentation before the ABA. She said the ABA would like to work on the program and hopefully have it taken up by other law schools. She said it might also spur the legal profession to even more action in pro bono work.

The mortgage crisis will be around for some time, and Neville-Ewell said even later, people always will need information on real estate matters.

"The 10CORE model is one we can use to combat this problem," she said. "People will always need information on real estate matters, because it's the largest transaction most people will ever get involved in."

"This goal is to continue what I started 15 years ago," she said. "But more than looking at what we've done, I want the emphasis to be on what we need to do."

Published: Mon, Apr 18, 2011