Since 2009 almost 10 million homes have been lost to foreclosure, resulting in countless people losing their shelter. Banks, meanwhile, continue to escape criminal prosecution and refuse good-faith negotiations with homeowners. Last spring, a group of people created a local grassroots organization called Standing Against Foreclosure and Eviction (SAFE). Patterned after the Boston-based nonprofit City Life/Vida Urbana, SAFE has a goal to help people stay in their homes, either through a defensive strategy of working within legal channels or an offensive strategy of staging public protests and putting pressure on banks.
With recent headlines trumpeting
recovering home values, it would be easy to think the housing crisis is over. Yet for many, the nightmare continues, at a clip of about 300 foreclosures a month in Seattle alone. The Northwest Area Foundation released a study called “Fostering Equitable Foreclosure Recovery” that highlights how, in an all-too-familiar pattern, the crisis has hit some groups and neighborhoods harder than others: “Within the city, foreclosures are much more concentrated in communities of color: 31 percent of residents are people of color, but 57 percent of residents in the 10 highest foreclosure ZIP codes are people of color.”
Rarely do you hear stories of these families still caught up in the mortgage debacle. Often people are too ashamed or too fearful to speak up because they worry they will be accused of being selfish or lazy or that they deserve their predicament.
Many of these people work and pay taxes, but due to illness, job loss, the economy or predatory lending practices, they face losing their homes. This can be a heavy blow. On the door of the building where SAFE holds its meetings, there is a sign that reads, “Leave your shame at the door.” Inside you can hear people tell their stories in a safe place where they won’t be judged.
Last December, at my first SAFE meeting, I told my story. I talked about my divorce, becoming a single mom and buying a small house in West Seattle in 2003. At one point, like many others, I was encouraged to refinance my mortgage at a variable interest rate and told that my home would surely increase in value. A series of events — a strike, surgery, pay cuts — left me vulnerable. Then the economic collapse hit and like many, I needed help. I was encouraged when I heard about government programs that required banks to modify mortgages; the modifications were trade-offs for taxpayers like me, who bailed out banks declared “too big to fail.”
I contacted my mortgage lender, Bank of America, to apply for a modification. And this is where my story becomes all too familiar: The bank said I did not qualify because I hadn’t fallen behind enough on my payments, and it told me time and again to re-send paperwork. Even my attempts to contact public agencies set up to help people like me were fruitless. I finally located a federally approved homeowner-assistance office in Kelso, almost two hours south of Seattle.
There, I was told (erroneously, I later discovered) that I did not qualify for a modification. This went on for more than a year.
Finally, desperate to keep my home, I filed for bankruptcy and worked two jobs to make payments — until I was laid off from my public teaching job due to government budget cuts following the economic collapse. I am hoping to find another job soon, and with SAFE’s help, again attempt to negotiate with the bank to keep my home.
Something is wrong when people are being left homeless due to foreclosure, while banks and investors benefit from record profits. And the crisis is not over. Currently, 38 percent of homes in Seattle are under water, meaning the value of the house is worth less than the amount owed.
Last month, recognizing that distressed homeowners have a negative impact on neighborhoods, the Seattle City Council adopted Resolution 31434.
Right now, the ideas for solutions are vague and broad, but it’s a start. We need to continue to demand justice for our neighbors who’ve lost their homes. It’s a fight worth fighting.