In October, a group of Northern Virginia religious congregations gathered at Freedom High School in Woodbridge to discuss housing issues in Prince William County and demand action.
Under the banner of Virginians Organized for Interfaith Community Engagement (VOICE), religious leaders wanted banks to pledge to help Prince William, one of the communities hit hardest by foreclosures in the region.
Representatives from Bank of America and JPMorganChase promised support, in varying ways, for Prince William.
But there is another corporate player Prince William’s religious leaders would like to bring to the table: General Electric. As leaders have looked to work with GE, they have been rebuffed, they said. GE used to own California-based WMC Mortgage, which has been discontinued, but whose “subprime” loans were handed out in large numbers across the country, including in Prince William. VOICE leaders say those loans have failed at high rates since the 2007 peak of the housing crisis.
So they marched to GE’s District offices on Pennsylvania Avenue NW on Tuesday to demand engagement and to symbolically “fire” GE CEO Jeffrey R. Immelt from a position on a White House jobs panel for ignoring a crisis in the District’s back yard. They held pink slips for Immelt and gave speeches to an empty lobby, shouting “Shame!” in unison.
Immelt is on the White House Council on Jobs and Competitiveness, an advisory panel, and religious leaders say that if he can’t address Prince William’s issues, he’s unfit to advise the president on job issues.
A GE spokesman could not immediately be reached for comment.
Religious leaders said it was time for GE to come to the negotiating table and help right a wrong by helping to rebuild communities.
“It’s not enough to blame the victims,” said the Rev. Gerry Creedon, pastor at Holy Family Catholic Church in Dale City. “That it’s right here [near] Washington is a disgrace.”
Those in the banking industry continue to debate the role of mortgage companies and banks in helping to rebuild communities. Some political leaders have said that the banking industry is not solely to blame for the foreclosure crisis, and that homebuyers agreed to subprime loans that in many cases they could not afford.
WMCMortgage was the subject of a federal study that called it one of the “worst” actors for its subprime loan activity, as well as the number of those loans that went into foreclosure. Further, the Center for Public Integrity’s iWatchNews published an investigation detailing fraudulent practices that put homeowners at risk across the country.
In a July letter to the Rev. Clyde Ellis of Mount Olive Baptist Church in Woodbridge, WMC’s chief executive said that because WMC does not own the loans any longer, there is little the company can do to help Prince William residents.
“Again, we are sorry WMC is not in a position to work with your members on their servicing issues and hope you are able to work with the current loan owners and servicers,” said the letter from WMC President and CEO James Zollo.
For Ellis, GE and Immelt’s involvement — and, in the end, promises to offer dollars to help rebuild communities — is about taking responsibility. “You can delegate authority,” he said, “but you cannot delegate responsibility.”
Update: Russell Wilkerson, a GE spokesman, said in an e-mail that GE pledged late last year to provide funding for one housing counselor for Prince William County.
About half of all Prince William homeowners are “underwater,” or owe more than their home is worth. VOICE leaders have asked institutions to provide key housing counselors to help “underwater” homeowners.
“We also told VOICE we would meet with them again,” Wilkerson wrote.