A Meeting at the White House on Homeownership

Last week I attended a meeting at the White House with Obama administration officials on the housing and homeownership crisis. I joined 150 faith, civil rights, consumer protection, and community leaders from around the country to express the urgency of the crisis, share our stories, and promote practical solutions.

In a loud, clear voice we expressed the pressing reality of this crisis for families, communities, and our nation, with 2 million foreclosure filings this year, and millions more at risk. Another 15 million American homeowners are underwater—meaning that their home is worth less than they owe on their mortgage. And after years of predatory lending and mass foreclosures, a scourge of vacant properties, devastated home values, and impaired credit litter too many communities.

Participants shared their own stories, and those of neighbors, congregants and constituents struggling with abuse by banks and servicers. They included Brigitte Walker of Georgia, an Iraq War veteran who addressed the group. Ms. Walker was driven to the brink of foreclosure after an injury forced her to leave the military and sharply reduced her income. She detailed how her lender, Chase, repeatedly lost documents, gave her misinformation, bounced her around, and slated her home for foreclosure as she tried to negotiate a loan modification.

Ms. Walker was two weeks away from losing her home when Occupy Atlanta took up her case and began pushing Chase to negotiate. "They got everyday people like myself involved. Everyday people contacting Chase and advocating for me, peaceful demonstrations, people calling and writing in," Walker told a local news station at the time.

Just a few days later, Chase called back and struck a deal with Walker that allowed her to keep her home and make reasonable mortgage payments going forward. When she finished telling her story at the White House, Ms. Walker received a standing ovation.

Administration officials listened, and also detailed the considerable steps that the Executive Branch has taken to address the crisis, from establishing the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, to encouraging refinancing and loan modifications, to joining 49 state attorneys general in a national mortgage settlement with five major banks. None disputed, however, that those steps have been insufficient, so far, to address the scale of this crisis.

They pointed out, correctly, that a gridlocked Congress has thwarted many bolder solutions, like forcing consideration of principal reduction for mortgages backed by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, or redirecting unused TARP funds toward housing counseling. That’s why, as planned, many of the participants headed to Capitol Hill after the White House meeting to urge members of Congress to take action of their own. An existing priority for many is the Expanding Refinancing Opportunities Act of 2012, a bill to allow more homeowners the chance to refinance mortgages with insurance provided by the Federal Housing Administration (FHA).

But the officials also candidly acknowledged something important: that many of the steps that the Administration has taken have come because social movements and everyday Americans have demanded them. That’s why we’ll be stepping up our activism, and ramping up our demands.

The Home for Good campaign, Home Defenders LeagueOccupy Our Homes, and Home Is Where the Vote Is have been pushing, separately and in collaboration, for bolder and more effective action—from the White House, Congress, cities and states, and the banks and financial industry. We seek an end to needless foreclosures, restoration of devastated communities, investment in affordable housing, and accountability on Wall Street. And we have concrete, proven solutions to offer that are rooted in research and experience around the country.

Now is the time to turn up the heat on our elected officials for home opportunity solutions. In our democratic system, that’s how change gets made.

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