By Ben Ehrenreich
This article appeared in the February 9, 2009 edition of The Nation.
January 22, 2009
"This is a crowd that won't scatter," James Steele wrote in the pages of The Nation some seventy-five years ago. Early one morning in July 1933, the police had evicted John Sparanga and his family from a home on
"The small home-owners of the
The crowds appear to be gathering again--far more quietly this time but hardly tentatively. Community-based movements to halt the flood of foreclosures have been building across the country. They turned out in
It's unlikely, though, that any of these activists will be able to relax soon. Other than calling for a ninety-day freeze on foreclosures--which, given that loan negotiations can take many months to work out, would almost certainly be inadequate--President Obama has been consistently vague about his plans to address the foreclosure crisis. He has indicated his support for a $24 billion program proposed in November by FDIC chair Sheila Bair, which would offer banks incentives to renegotiate loans, aiming to reduce mortgage payments to 31 percent of homeowners' monthly income. Obama's economic team has since worked with House Financial Services Committee chair Barney Frank on a bill that would require that between $40 billion and $100 billion of what's left in the bailout package be spent on an unspecified foreclosure mitigation program. It would be left to Obama's Treasury Department to design that program. But Frank's and Bair's proposed plans are voluntary. Banks that choose not to accept federal assistance won't have to renegotiate a single loan.
Community organizers, however, aren't sitting around waiting for banks to come to the table. Nowhere have they had more cause to keep busy than in
The crisis has produced some unlikely activists. Faith Bautista didn't start out as a rabble-rouser. A small, energetic and stubbornly cheerful woman, she has run a tiny nonprofit called the Mabuhay
It was through the latter program that Bautista heard the first rumblings of the mortgage meltdown, which would ultimately bring down Wall Street's most powerful financial firms.
The community Mabuhay serves--about 40 percent Filipino, the remainder Latino, African-American and other Asians--was hit particularly hard. Throughout the housing boom, immigrant and minority borrowers were disproportionately issued high-priced subprime loans, even when they qualified for less expensive, fixed-rate mortgages. One study by the
In the early months of 2007, as the first of the subprime lenders began to declare bankruptcy, Bautista started contacting major lenders, asking them to stop foreclosures and take part in a "massive loan-modification program"--dropping interest rates, writing down principals and donating executive bonuses to a fund for borrowers at risk of default. If lenders shared responsibility for the crisis, she calculated, homeowners shouldn't bear the full brunt of the suffering. Not surprisingly, she laughs, "they didn't want to talk to us."
That summer, with the help of the Greenlining Institute, a Berkeley-based research and advocacy group that works on racial equality issues, she was able to arrange a meeting with Countrywide co-founder and CEO Angelo Mozilo. At the time, almost one-fourth of Countrywide's subprime loans were delinquent. The meeting, Bautista says, was fruitless: "Eyes are closed, ears are closed." Over the next few months, she met three more times with Countrywide management, getting nowhere. "They didn't want to admit they were doing anything wrong."
Elected officials appeared equally blind to the extent of the problem. Countrywide's stock had plummeted, but the influence of the nation's largest mortgage lender still ran deep. Mozilo's so-called Friends of Angelo program had cut favorable deals on loans to his highly placed acquaintances, including Christopher Dodd and Kent Conrad, chairs of the Senate banking and budget committees, respectively. And Countrywide, along with other top mortgage lenders and industry associations, spent tens of millions of dollars lobbying Congress and gave millions more in campaign contributions. By mid-October 2007, the government's only response to the foreclosure crisis had been the creation of the Hope Now alliance, a voluntary mortgage-industry coalition that established a telephone hot line to aid homeowners in altering the terms of their mortgages. But, critics say, the program has done little more than design repayment plans that in many cases actually increased borrowers' monthly payments. "I call it Hope Not," quips Bautista.
At the state level, things weren't much better. Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger brokered a nonbinding agreement in which Countrywide and other lenders volunteered to extend the introductory low interest rates on some adjustable-rate mortgages. It only deferred disaster and did nothing for those who were already in default. Meanwhile, new foreclosure records were being broken every month.
The day before Thanksgiving, the Mabuhay
The next week, Bautista and Gnaizda went to
In December, a few weeks after the Countrywide protest, she and Gnaizda wangled a meeting with California Attorney General Jerry Brown, asking him to sue Countrywide for defrauding borrowers. He wasn't interested, Bautista says. The following June, a few days before Bank of
In the meantime, all the major loan providers in the country have agreed to work with Mabuhay to modify individual loans. This means, Bautista says, that Mabuhay can help about twenty people a week. She is far from satisfied. Despite the hundreds of billions of dollars given to the financial industry, no federal or state government has provided any substantive relief to the people hit the hardest by the mortgage crisis--the ones who are losing their homes. "You gotta start from the bottom and go up," Bautista says. "If you start at the top, then at the bottom you get crumbs. You get nothing."
In December Mabuhay sponsored a "foreclosure clinic" at a community college in the
Standing beside Bautista at the front of the auditorium, Gnaizda did his best to channel the crowd's frustration into action. "Ten million families are facing foreclosure right now," he said. "Change is not going to come about because President Obama wants it to. He is not going to act unless you hold his feet to the fire."
Gnaizda was not alone in that conclusion: other grassroots efforts to stop foreclosures have been sprouting up all over
More recently, ACORN has been pushing the adoption of the program the group helped pioneer in
Much of the local organizing on the issue, though, has not come from the usual activist suspects. Circumstances have forced groups that usually practice more staid forms of engagement into the fray, particularly in the former industrial towns just beyond the urban fringe, which have been among those hit hardest by the economic collapse. The antiforeclosure movement in
The strategy worked. CCISCO protested in front of several Antioch bank branches in May. Lenders soon began returning the group's phone calls and agreeing to renegotiate their members' loans. But the Bush administration's bailout plan generated enough anger that, Kruggel says, "we realized we needed to work on a local and national level. For less than what [the Treasury] gave Wells
Craig Robbins, who directs ACORN's foreclosure campaign, echoes Kruggel's sentiment: "We're excited about some of the things Obama has been saying, but there's got to be tremendous pressure for a real, comprehensive federal solution." Taking cues from Depression-era antiforeclosure movements, ACORN activists began disrupting foreclosure sales at courthouses across the country in January. "We're looking to throw a wrench in the foreclosure machinery," says Robbins, adding that ACORN is planning to organize "rapid defense teams" ready to turn out crowds on short notice to prevent evictions. Until that happens, it might help to remember that the crowd of thousands that came to the Sparanga family's defense in
Ben Ehrenreich, a journalist and novelist based in
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