A Sense of Resentment Amid the 'For Sale' Signs

By Joel Achenbach
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, September 22, 2008

The bailout doesn't smell right to the people of Manassas Park, where the foreclosure signs are as common as azaleas. They know all about bad debt here. This is a terrain of oversize dreams, misjudgment, financial calamity -- and empty houses. "Foreclosure. Foreclosure. Foreclosure," said Ed Merkle, 58, as he pointed to the "for sale" signs lining his street.

But Merkle, a defense contractor, said he has lived within his means in an era of easy credit. He didn't take on a huge loan even when his bank encouraged him to dream bigger.

"I've been financially responsible with my own money. Why should I now be responsible for the fact that you were not?" he said.

This may be a Main Street bailout backlash in the making. The details of the financial crisis are still hard for most people to follow -- what with talk of exotic "derivatives" known as "credit-default swaps" and so on -- but the central fact of the matter hasn't been lost on anyone in this Northern Virginia community: The taxpayers are on the hook for the bad judgment of others.

And they say they don't like it. They didn't break it, but now they've bought it. Political leaders and financial titans say the bailout is necessary to save the economy, but on the ground, in such places as Manassas Park, people think that the bailout will reward the wrong people. There's a sense that too many folks bought houses they couldn't really afford, banks urged them on, common sense went on vacation, and now the grown-ups have to clean up the mess.

"If I spent more money than I have, I don't deserve to have somebody bail me out," said John Owens, 45, a developer who lives on Eagle Court, where three houses have gone through foreclosure.

The anti-bailout sentiment appears to cut across class lines. You hear it from one end of Manassas Drive, the main drag through town, to the other -- from the small, Cape Cod-style homes built with G.I. Bill money after World War II to the muscle-bound houses newly risen along the golf course.

"I'm worried that the taxpayers are going to wind up paying for all this," said Arlena Elbaraka, 38, who lives in the manicured neighborhood of Blooms Crossing.

"Who ends up losing from all this? Us, right?" asked Rogelio Benitez, 36, a home-improvement contractor who lives with his wife and six kids in a working-class neighborhood on the western edge of town.

"I'm not overextended," Merkle said. "I didn't buy a large home that I can't afford. I'm not behind on any of my payments. I'm not sure I want the government to take my tax dollars and buy someone else's house for them."

The comments suggest that the bailout could pose a stiff new challenge for presidential candidates and anyone else running for office this fall. The wisdom of the government's massive financial intervention hasn't been marketed to the masses. The nation's financial and political leaders are working round the clock to repair the shattered markets, and no one, from the White House on down, has spent more than a few minutes explaining to the American people why they're being asked to assume hundreds of billions of dollars of liabilities.

President Bush said little all week. Finally, in remarks in the Rose Garden on Friday, the president said, "These measures will require us to put a significant amount of taxpayer dollars on the line." All the rescue efforts combined may approach a trillion dollars.

In a press availability Saturday, standing alongside Colombian President Alvaro Uribe, Bush spoke to the concerns of "Main Street."

"You know, you hear them talking about Wall Street and Main Street -- well, this is Wall Street plus Main Street, and I'm worried about Main Street," he said. He recounted a conversation with Treasury Secretary Henry M. Paulson Jr. and other officials: "I said, what's it going to take to make sure Main Street doesn't get affected by the policies of Wall Street? And this is what they came up with, and this is a big ticket, because it's a big problem."

In Manassas Park and nearby communities in Prince William County, many people see the bailout as a violation of the basic rule that people and institutions must live within their means or face the consequences.

Kevin Newman, 42, knows how hard up people can get. He owns Ace Pawn, in a shopping center on Route 28 next to a newly vacant Checkers fast-food outlet. Newman spends his day lending money to people. He sees them at their most desperate. From a back room he pulls out a brand-new, sparkling Rickenbacker guitar that someone had gotten for his birthday and pawned just weeks later. His shop is filled with precious jewelry that people surrendered for cash. He had a customer -- he won't say who -- who pawned a Washington Redskins Super Bowl ring.

And Newman knows what it's like to be broke. He went bankrupt after a daughter was born prematurely and he faced $1 million in medical bills.

"I've been on both sides of the counter," he said.

Now, he never uses a credit card. If he can't pay for something out of his pocket, he won't buy it.

He instinctively doesn't like the bailout.

"I think our kids are going to be paying for it, and their kids are going to be paying for it, and probably their kids are going to be paying for it," he said.

Not far away, on Scott Drive, a side street off Manassas Drive, Charlie Crabill, 54, a landscaper, asks a common question in these parts: "Are they going to bail me out?" Crabill has benefited in one way from the mortgage meltdowns: He mows the lawns of about 70 houses in foreclosure, receiving a regular check from Fannie Mae.

Hours of interviews in Manassas Park turned up exactly one resident in favor of the bailout, a fellow in a Harvard T-shirt in a big house near the golf course. Richard Bejtlich, 36, who works in computer security for General Electric -- its stock jumped dramatically Friday when the government banned short-selling of financial securities -- says he's a libertarian and normally wouldn't support government intervention. But there's no other way at this point, he says, because we're in too deep of a hole and have been too profligate.

He recounts a conversation with a new neighbor who moved into a deluxe home:

"How did you afford that house?" Bejtlich asked.

"I don't know. I just signed," the neighbor said.

Prince William County is one of many ground zeros in the subprime mortgage crisis. Pick up a pamphlet on home sales in the county, and you will come across an ad saying "Foreclosures R Us!" Pictured are dozens of homes being sold for what seem like bargain-basement prices, some under $200,000. But there aren't many buyers -- because no one knows what anything is really worth, or whether the market is anywhere near bottom.

Exactly $180,000 -- about half the assessed value -- is what Paul Stinnett wants for his house, a Cape Cod under a 200-year-old white oak on Scott Drive. He's putting it on the market Monday. Painting the trim on the front door, Stinnett says of the bailout, "The last I heard it was going to cost the taxpayers a trillion dollars." He's not sure if the bailout's a good idea, but he does know the ultimate cause of the problem: "Greed. I think anybody can see that."

Ron Alphin, a home remodeler sitting on his porch and watching the Manassas Drive traffic roll by -- he's just a matter of feet outside the Manassas Park city line -- is flat-out against the bailout.

"The government got other problems they need to straighten out," he says. "They ain't going to help us a bit."

Jose Guzman, 18, says his Manassas Drive family has had personal experience with a disastrous mortgage. His mother, he says, snapped up a property down the street several years ago, only to be surprised when the mortgage proved adjustable, the interest rate rising so quickly that in two years the monthly payment went from $1,600 to $3,000. The bank foreclosed on that house.

Guzman points to a house for sale across the street.

"You know what they did? They actually just left, and let the bank take the house."

And this isn't even the hardest-hit part of the county. Woodbridge is worse, says Don Ratterree Jr., the real estate agent whose face and phone number can be found at the bottom of the "Foreclosures R Us" ads.

He puts the best spin on a bad situation: "It's a good buyer's market."

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