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The Foreclosees Protest An American Dream Turned Nightmare

By David Montgomery
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 2, 2008

BALTIMORE, Oct. 1 -- On Capitol Hill, on television, everywhere, everyone is talking about them, or people like them all over America: the members of this posse of pain and reality marching into the Baltimore office of the Department of Housing and Urban Development on Wednesday.

They are the Foreclosees. The people who lost their houses. The ones who are about to lose their houses. Yeah, them.

Is this their fault? Are they rubes, or victims? Give them this much: By snapping up all those too-good-to-be-true mortgages touted by ruthless greedheads, and then being unable to pay them off, they are on the verge of b ringing the global economy to its knees. Or so it is said. That's power, baby.

Now it's time to hear from them. They are sick of all the gossip, the tsk-tsking, the sanctimonious moralizing.

They are going down to see the Man in his marble-lobbied building. They want to make a federal case out of it. In person. They want some justice.

There is Veronica Peterson, who bought her house on Fox Grape Terrace in Columbia for $545,000 in November 2006, and eventually lost it. The monthly payments were $4,450, even though her previous year's income was $50,000 plus child support from her ex-husband. Only later, when housing counselors brought it to her attention, did she notice that on the loan application the broker had inflated her income and listed assets she didn't own.

"These loans were weapons of mass destruction," she says, getting ready for the Man with her son Ryan, 3, who is holding a copy of "David and Goliath." "They destroyed our credit, our lives, and they blew up in our face."

There is Donna Hanks, who shows pictures on her cellphone of the padlock the bankers just slapped on her $87,000 Baltimore rowhouse. She was kicked out the day before, failing after several years to meet the $1,600 monthly payments on her salary as a banquet server, which lately has dwindled to $1,200 a month in an ailing economy.

"You don't know your work is going to slide down and cut back," she says.

There are Monica Lee, who is on the brink of losing her home in Frederick, and Helen Smith, who fears she won't be able to keep up with payments on her Baltimore home since her husband recently died.

They are nearly a dozen from around Maryland, organized by the Baltimore office of ACORN (Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now), the community action group that provides housing counseling.

The procession enters an office lobby downtown. The Man is upstairs.

This first day of October happens to be the launch of a new program called "HOPE for Homeowners," designed by HUD to "help more struggling families keep their homes," according to the news release.

The visitors want to take HUD up on the offer. Now.

Nobody does this anymore. Nobody goes down to fight city hall. Nobody mau-maus the flak catcher in person.

And yet, how strangely bracing it is. On Capitol Hill and on television, so much disembodied theory is being spewed in order to explain a hypothetical apocalypse caused by the virtual trading of unseen paper. This encounter between the Man and the Foreclosees restores your faith that maybe, after all, there is a there, there, at the heart of this crisis.

Today the Man is incarnated as James Kelly, director of this field office. He gets a call from the overwhelmed guard.

Unflappable and human, with his collar askew, no chance for a look in the mirror, Kelly comes downstairs.

The Man and the Foreclosees stand facing each other in the marble lobby.

"I don't have my reference materials," Kelly says. He doesn't know the exact name of the new program.

"That's a program you apply to a lender for," he says. "We don't lend money, but we can insure the loan."

It's all very civil. No voices are raised. And nothing is resolved.

What the Man is saying, very gently, is the visitors have come to the wrong place.

The new program offers federal insurance on troubled mortgages if the lender will agree to accept a smaller payback.

"Nobody understands this blight better than those of us who have had to live with this devastation," says Gloria Swieringa, ACORN's feisty Maryland chairman, wearing a pink track suit. She almost lost her house several years ago.

"Say I'm in arrears," Swieringa says. "I go find someone to save my bacon before my ship sinks. Is that the way it works?"

Basically, yes, says Kelly.

"We've come to a heck of a place where the people on Wall Street can make a mess, and those who are the victims of the mess have to pay for it, and no one spreads a mantle of mercy over them," Swieringa says.

"HUD can only do what Congress says we can do," Kelly says.

The Foreclosees like this Man, all right. "We're not castigating you as an individual," Swieringa says. "We're speaking out against the inequity of the system."

It's over in about 20 minutes, the Foreclosees and the Man go their separate ways.

"We were sort of expecting to be disappointed," says ACORN Maryland lead organizer Stuart Katzenberg, "but we wanted to prove the point" that while Wall Street gets bailed out, the only program for Foreclosees may be insufficient.

Since January, 425 people on the brink of losing their houses or already evicted have asked ACORN for help, and 70 percent of them were victims of deceptive loan pitches, Katzenberg says.

Kelly says he's used to being the Man at public meetings around the state. Sometimes, people "want somebody to hear them, whether or not the person hearing them is someone who can change what they want to see changed."

Veronica Peterson picks up Ryan and returns to the house of a friend in Columbia, who is letting the mother and her four children stay there, while she figures out what to do next.

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