USC Price School of Public Policy

Price DPPD project broadcast as a PBS documentary

Knowledge in Action:

Price Doctoral Project Broadcast as a PBS Documentary

By Cristy Lytal

Imran Farooq and Leonard Mitchell Imran Farooq, left, and Leonard Mitchell, right, take part in a live call-in show on PBS following the premiere. Click here to watch the documentary.
Photo courtesy of KVCR

Imran Farooq DPPD ’11 proved that he was ready for his close-up during the Oct. 24 broadcast of SOS: Sustaining Our Society, a PBS documentary based on his USC Price School of Public Policy doctoral project. The documentary is available for viewing online.

“SOS is about taking the initiative to work together as a community and respond to the housing crisis,” said Farooq, who raised the entire documentary budget through sponsorships. “This documentary follows my journey as a USC doctoral student as I harness my education toward making a difference in the Inland Empire.”

Produced by Decoupage Film & Video, the documentary demonstrates how Farooq used private investment to acquire and rehabilitate an abandoned, foreclosed property and improve the surrounding neighborhood block in the 62nd Assembly District, an area hard hit by the housing crisis in San Bernardino, Calif.

It’s also the region where Farooq grew up and the place that he still calls home. As a partner at Omnius Group, an economic development company, Farooq saw the collapse of the housing market as a chance to make a change.

“I realized that the housing crisis was a unique opportunity to transform our existing housing stock through water and energy efficiency so that our communities emerge even more sustainable than before the recession,” he said.

Farooq partnered with the County of San Bernardino’s Department of Workforce Development to retrain unemployed veterans for the green tech industry. Bland Solar taught the veterans how to install solar panels, and they went to work on the foreclosed property.

The restored home — complete with weatherization, energy-efficient appliances and a produce garden — was then sold to owner-occupied buyers who went through a U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD)-approved education program to prepare them for responsible homeownership.

Meanwhile, Farooq connected the property’s neighbors with programs and organizations that would help to “green” the surrounding block. Upon final appraisal, the total value of the homes on that block increased by roughly 20 percent due to the improvements.

As Farooq’s project gained momentum, an opportunity arose for him to present his recommendations to policymakers at a Washington, D.C., conference co-sponsored by the USC Center for Economic Development, HUD and the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco.

Farooq’s neighborhood stabilization approach proved so successful that the nonprofit organization HomeStrong USA implemented it on a much larger scale. HomeStrong USA acquired, rehabilitated, “greened” and sold more than 300 foreclosures to owner occupied, low- and moderate-income families without a penny of public funds.

“A very critical part of this model is that there’s mandatory HUD-approved homeownership education counseling for buyers,” Farooq said. “This is important so that the cycle doesn’t repeat itself.”

Following the broadcast of the documentary, Farooq, USC Price Clinical Professor Leonard Mitchell and HomeStrong USA President Jed Davis fielded questions from callers during a live telecast. Several callers asked for advice about their distressed mortgages, and Farooq, Mitchell and Davis urged them to contact free HUD-approved counseling agencies for guidance.

“The questions mainly were from people who were inspired by what they saw on television, and their questions were very personal about what they were going through in the context of foreclosure,” Mitchell said. “The time went very fast, and the station provided an extra half hour to entertain the great number of questions.”

Farooq is already piloting another initiative focusing on homeowner preservation. He’s partnered with a socially conscious lender, which has acquired 287 distressed mortgages throughout the country. After acquiring pools of distressed mortgages at a discounted percentage of asset value, the socially conscious lender forgives all past due payments unconditionally and brings the principal balance down to reflect the current market value of the home. The only condition is that the borrowers must receive HUD-approved counseling and continued education from HomeStrong USA.

“I really think that the homeowner preservation model is the Holy Grail because to not concede that the foreclosures are inevitable is the greatest achievement,” Farooq said. “People’s housing situation affects their lives, their marriages, their kids. Literally, we’ve had people tell us we’ve saved their marriage. Displacing people from their homes has an emotional quality that you can’t measure in GDP and numbers. It’s far more damaging.”

In addition, Farooq attributes much of his success to the support of USC Price.

“USC has made such an impact on my life,” he said. “It opened up so many doors and offered such support. And honestly, outside of my mom, no one in the world has influenced me more than Leonard Mitchell has — I’m just really grateful.”