A Bane Amid The Housing Boom: Rising Foreclosures

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By Michael Powell
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, May 30, 2005

PHILADELPHIA -- To walk Thayer Street in northeast Philadelphia is to count, door by door, the economic devastation afflicting a working-class neighborhood. On a single block, 18 of the 42 brick rowhouses have gone into foreclosure in the past three years.

There's Marciela Perez, who fell ill with cancer, lacked health insurance and stopped making mortgage payments. Barrel-chested Richard Hidalgo, who got divorced and could no longer make his monthly nut. And Mike O'Mara, a rawboned and crew-cut truck driver who took on too much debt, lost his job and fell behind on his mortgage.

"Mortgage companies convinced us to refinance, and each time our bill went up," O'Mara said as he surveyed his narrow street from his shaded front porch. "You fall behind and they swoop down on you."

Philadelphia, its suburbs and indeed much of Pennsylvania have experienced a foreclosure epidemic as low-income homeowners take on mortgage debt they cannot afford. In 2000, the Philadelphia sheriff auctioned 300 to 400 foreclosed properties a month; now he handles more than 1,000 a month. Allegheny County, which includes Pittsburgh, had record auctions of foreclosed homes, and officials speak of a "Depression-era" problem. The foreclosures fall particularly hard on black and Latino families.

For some American homeowners, the greatest housing boom in U.S. history has delivered riches. They repeatedly tap their homes for equity and use the cash to purchase granite countertops, a BMW, even a trip to the Super Bowl. But there's a dark side -- a sharp rise in foreclosures that is destroying the single greatest generator of personal wealth for most Americans.

Foreclosure rates rose in 47 states in March, according to Foreclosure.com, an online foreclosure listing service. The rates in Florida, Texas and Colorado are more than twice the national average. Even in New York City and Boston, where real estate markets are white-hot, foreclosures are rising in working-class neighborhoods.

Virginia, Maryland and the District have relatively low foreclosure rates -- analysts say troubled owners in those booming markets can still sell their homes before facing foreclosure.

Should the nation's housing bubbles deflate, as many economists and federal officials expect, the foreclosures could prefigure a national crisis. Americans now shoulder record levels of housing debt -- more than 8 percent of homeowners spend at least half their income on their mortgage.

"We are clearly seeing a spike in foreclosures in a number of our major urban areas," said Julie L. Williams, acting U.S. comptroller of the currency, whose agency regulates the nation's banks. "It can lead to a downward spiral for neighborhoods. If we are not careful, the American dream can quickly turn into the American nightmare."

A recent study in Chicago found that rising foreclosures, and attendant social dislocation, fuel increases in crime rates.

State and federal regulators place much of the blame for the foreclosure problem at the feet of mortgage brokers and bankers, who have crafted ever-riskier ways for Americans with poor credit to buy homes. Interest-only and adjustable-rate mortgages account for 63 percent of new mortgages.

But many policymakers say the rise in foreclosures leads to a larger question: Is the push to boost homeownership -- successive presidential administrations have strongly promoted it -- backfiring? As home prices and personal debt rise to record levels, they note, homeownership has become an albatross for millions of Americans, destroying rather than creating wealth.


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© 2005 The Washington Post Company

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