Eleven months after Brandie Barbiere stopped paying the mortgage on her Milliken, Colo., home, her husband found out when he returned from work to see their possessions piled on the front lawn. As a sheriff’s deputy supervised the Oct. 5, 2011, eviction, he confronted his wife and wrestled with his anger. A few minutes later he spotted photographer John Moore. “Who the hell are you?” the husband exclaimed.
“I said I was very sorry this was happening and that I was taking some pictures to show what people all around the country were going through,” Moore recalled. “And he let me stay.”
Moore is one of a small cadre of photographers who have set out to record the life-altering event of a foreclosure, which sometimes is climaxed by an eviction lasting at most two hours. Moore’s pictures and those of 10 other photographers (see slideshow below) form a new exhibit, “Foreclosed: Documents from the American Housing Crisis,” at the Alice Austen House on New York City’s Staten Island, which held its opening reception earlier this month.
Since 2009, Moore has photographed hundreds of evictions in Colorado. “Everybody had a different story,” he said. “Some people had lost their jobs and could no longer make their mortgage payments.”
Barbiere’s foreclosure was triggered by the shrinking of her child care business. Other homeowners had assumed balloon mortgages whose rates readjusted to levels they could not afford. And then there’s Tracy Munch, whom Moore photographed on Feb. 2, 2009, in Colorado’s Adams County. Although she paid her rent faithfully, Moore said, her family was evicted because her landlord had stopped paying the mortgage.
Moore immersed himself in the world of foreclosures after a three-year posting for Getty Images in Islamabad. He returned to a United States besieged by recession and wanted to chronicle one of the causes: the bursting of the real estate bubble. “The struggle was trying to get access to the actual moment when people were being evicted from their homes,” he said.
Tell us how you’d like to see banks change the way they treat homeowners. Please use the comment section for your responses.
My experience at HAMP’s Education session for Real Estate Professionals was like being in a parallel universe. What my mind knew and what I was hearing and seeing were complete opposites. I had to mask my expressions all day. I was fearful my face would give me away. I was terrified I would be “found out”. I really play for the other team, the team that wants people to STAY in their homes. I was truly David in Goliath’s backyard. Even with my own foreclosure nightmare, I still am naïve to the far reaches of greed and fraud. Looking into the faces of the “Big 5” bank representatives, I saw smugness, condensation, annoyance, and the ever present blame everyone else attitude.
The session was about HAFA, Home Affordable Foreclosure Alternatives, i.e. Short Sales and Deed in Lieu. Or as D.S. from Wells Fargo said, “Graceful Exits”. “ A way for people to keep their dignity.” Wow talking about families with such compassion. The Big 5 showed no understanding they were talking about their neighbors, their friends, their children’s classmates. Just unfeeling people sitting on a stage, while the minions sat below.
This event had primarily real estate professionals attend. Those poor brave souls, who had no idea that by the end of the session, they would be belittled and blamed for short sales that fail. Real Estate agents need to do their “due diligence” in order to get the sale closed. Another carrot dangling…My opinion of short sale agents shifted a bit, from the bottom feeders, to people being victimized by the banks. The banks create impossible hurdles for homeowners and everyone involved in real estate. The truly are the puppet masters of our country.
The biggest threat in America today is the BIG BANKS and WALL STREET. Be afraid.
HopeNow – Home Preservation event for homeowners.
The event continued in the afternoon, this time it was a huge production to show America that the banks, HUD and the Government really do care. Ha Ha. Once I realized that HopeNow is funded by the banks, I felt like I was in the twilight zone. Hundreds of people involved in this event, hopeful homeowners, unsuspecting housing counselors, and volunteers who believed this event was going to help people. It was nothing more than smoke and mirrors.
I entered the event, once again a sheep in wolf’s clothing. I was granted access to sit with the HUD approved counselors. I entered with apprehension, did I look like them? Would anyone recognize my name from change.org or the media? Would HSITrust be recognized? Nope. I was in. Talking with the counselors was unbelievable. Some were naïve and hopeful. Some like R.V. from a local HUD approved counseling agency were jaded and pessimistic. She said the banks like people to meet with housing counselors first, to make it easier for the banks. So people can start to accept the reality, that in the end they will lose their home.
I also met another woman, from another HUD approved agency who is a Realtor, and uses being a housing counselor to support her short sales. She has learned well; use the system for your own benefit. Maybe she could get a job at a bank, in the liquidation department.
I saw no one being helped. For example, woman from “keep your home California” table, who had 2 people go sit to apply and walked them to another table, saying they “probably” didn’t qualify. Truth is she was busy working on her laptop. I think housing counselors should be foreclosure survivors, they might have more willingness to work for their clients.
Most of the people I spoke with on their way out of the event, said they got no help. Gee, I wonder why? Others left with contact info for their “single point of contact” at the bank and were optimistic and disillusioned. I left feeling like a very small David, battling a HUGE Goliath. I also left with resolve to keep helping people like me, like others at HSITrust, victims of the foreclosure scam and Wall Street’s greed.
From The Huffington Post:
The five banks that agreed to a $25 billion settlement to resolve fraudulent foreclosure claims consistently hindered a government watchdog’s investigation into those practices, according to a report released on Tuesday by the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s inspector generals office.
The findings, based on a review of foreclosure practices at Bank of America, JPMorgan Chase, Wells Fargo, Citigroup and Ally Financial over a two-year span from October 1, 2008 to September 30, 2010, essentially confirm what has been reported extensively for nearly two years. Bank employees, in order to speed foreclosures, signed hundreds of legal documents a day without reviewing the accuracy of the foreclosure information, notarized signatures on documents that purported to verify a bank’s legal right to foreclose without ever checking whether that was true, and hired law firms that forged signatures en masse — all with the encouragement of management.
The report was issued by the HUD’s Office of Inspector General a day after the government finally filed in federal court documents that set the terms of the banks’ settlement to resolve a 16-month foreclosure investigation. The Department of Justice used the HUD review in negotiating the settlement.
Though the report describes a pattern of misconduct that appears widespread, it fails to quantify the damage to homeowners or, ultimately, how many home loans were affected. It also clearly reflects the frustration that investigators felt in conducting the review. Even as negotiators for the banks were fighting to win the best possible deal, their lawyers were stonewalling other government investigators trying to ascertain the scope of the “robo-signing” abuses.
Wells Fargo provided a list of 14 affidavit signers and notaries — but then stalled while the bank’s own attorneys interviewed them first. The bank then tried to restrict access to just five of those employees. The reason? “Wells Fargo told us we could not interview the others because they had reported questionable affidavit signing or notarizing practices when it interviewed them,” the report says.
In other words, Wells Fargo did not want the government to talk to employees who might discuss wrongdoing. Eventually, the bank allowed investigators to talk to the remaining employees — but only on the condition that bank management and attorneys attend the interviews as “facilitators.” This condition resulted in delays that may have limited the effectiveness of the interviews, the report says.
Bank of America only permitted its employees to be interviewed after the Department of Justice intervened and compelled the testimony through a civil investigation demand. Even so, the review was hindered, the report says.
“On a number of occasions, Bank of America’s attorneys refused to allow employees to answer questions, stopped them in the middle of clarifying information already provided, or counseled them in private before allowing them to provide a response. Further, [the bank] would not permit an effective walk through of its document execution process that would have facilitated an understanding of its process.”
The investigation into Citigroup’s mortgage division was “significantly hindered” by the bank’s lack of records. Citigroup simply did not have a mechanism for tracking how many foreclosure documents were signed.
Both JPMorgan Chase and Ally Financial refused to provide access to some employees or documents or otherwise impeded the investigation, according to the report.
Bank employees interviewed by the inspector general’s office described a range of pervasive abuses that happened with the consent, and in some cases, active encouragement of management.
Wells Fargo employees testified that they signed up to 600 documents a day without attempting to verify whether any of the information was correct. Employees that notarized documents, including sworn statements that purported to verify a bank’s legal right to foreclose on a home, told investigators that they notarized more than 1,000 documents a day — often without having witnessed the signature of the documents. The bank also relied on low-paid, unskilled workers to do the reviews: a former pizza restaurant worker, department store cashier, and a daycare worker, to name a few.
A vice president at Bank of America testified that she only checked foreclosure documents for formatting and spelling errors. Employees in India supposedly verified judgment figures in foreclosure documents, but none of the U.S. employees interviewed by the inspector general could explain how that process was supposed to work. One former employee described signing 12 to 18 inch stacks of documents without review.
Employees at Wells Fargo and Bank of America testified that they complained about the pace and lack of care given to reviews, but instead of relief, were told to sign even faster. One Bank of America notary said his target was set at 75 to 80 documents an hour, and he was evaluated on whether he met that target. One notary even notarized her own signature on a few documents.
Abuses at the other banks — JPMorgan Chase, Citigroup and Ally Financial — appear just as pervasive. Citi, for example, routinely hired law firms that “robo-signed” documents. An exhibit included with the report shows eight different versions of one attorney’s signature — all apparently signed by different people.
“The matters raised in the report cover observations that are two-four years old and they have been addressed,” said a statement emailed by Wells Fargo spokeswoman Vickee Adams. “Wells Fargo has made significant strides with implementing a number of changes in line with industry and regulatory servicing standards.”
Citigroup has implemented procedures to ensure “that no foreclosure goes forward based on an inaccurate or defective affidavit,” according to a statement emailed by spokesman Mark Rodgers.
“The memorandum references activities from over a year ago that have been addressed as we do all we can to modify loans when possible and to ensure foreclosures are fair when they are unavoidable,” said Bank of America spokesman Richard Simon in an email.
Ally Financial spokeswoman Gina Proia responded in a statement, “As we have stated previously, we regret that possible procedural deficiencies with respect to certain affidavits occurred; however throughout reviews of this matter, there was no evidence of someone being foreclosed on without being in significant default of their loan.”
JPMorgan Chase did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
It appears that the biggest bailed out banks are proving the economic theory of moral hazard to be true — namely that institutions that aren’t punished for risk-taking will continue to take risks. On the other side, small banks that received bailout money now are taking fewer risks than other banks. That’s probably because increased capital requirements for the small banks that received bailout money had a larger impact on smaller institutions, according to the Fed.
The Fed’s findings echo concerns already raised by some experts that bailing out banks with few strings attached would create a tier of too-big-to-fail banks that continue to take excessive risks. Neil Barofsky, the former special inspector general of TARP, wrote last year that big banks “have become effectively guaranteed by the government no matter how reckless their behavior.”
Nobel Prize laureate Joseph Stiglitz, a professor at Columbia University and a left-leaning economist, wrote in January that TARP hardly helped the economy, since much of the money went to bonuses instead of lending. “It was wrong to think that the bankers would mend their ways — that they would start to lend, if only they were treated nicely enough,” Stiglitz wrote.
But the Treasury Department has held fast in its defense of TARP. Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner said that it “first put out the financial fire.” Timothy Massad, the Treasury Department’s acting assistant secretary for financial stability, said last year that “to suggest that [increased risk-taking] is TARP’s main legacy is to ignore the facts, and to confuse the response to a crisis with the need to address the causes of the crisis,” according to Bloomberg News.
By 2009, the adjustable interest rate for Cassandra and Bernard Gray’s Durham, N.C., home loan had spiked to more than 12 percent. “I didn’t know if we were going to be on the street or in a shelter,” Cassandra recalls. “We couldn’t afford groceries. It got pretty bad.”
They were thrilled to sign up for a modification plan with their loan servicer, GMAC Home Mortgage, Cassandra Gray said.
The modification lowered their payment from $1,128 to $768 per month. But after three months, GMAC began returning their payments, the Grays claim in a complaint filed with the North Carolina Commissioner of Banks.
GMAC customer service representatives told them there was a “computer glitch” and that the problem would be resolved. Instead, GMAC twice started a foreclosure action.
GMAC claimed it had no record of any payment being received. The Grays have submitted bank statements that appear to show GMAC returning the $768 payment — several times. GMAC has since assessed more than $20,000 in interest and fees.
“I thought I was doing the correct thing” by obtaining a loan modification, Cassandra Gray said in a recent interview. “But I came home one day and there was a foreclosure notice on my door and a sign in my yard. I called constantly, but it was as if the dots were not connecting.”
A North Carolina clerk of court recently dismissed the foreclosure on grounds that GMAC had not properly demonstrated that it had standing to bring a foreclosure. But once GMAC gets its documentation in order, the loan servicer can foreclose again.
GMAC said it could not comment without borrower consent. The Grays did not sign a form authorizing the lender to talk about their case. But the lender did say that it is “working directly with the borrower to address their claims.”
Since 2007, nearly 9 million homes have been lost to foreclosure, according to data from RealtyTrac. About 4 million are currently in default on or in some stage of foreclosure. Some of these homeowners saw their payments skyrocket, some lost their jobs, and some bought a more expensive home than they could afford.
But many, like the Grays, say that their foreclosures or defaults were triggered by an error made by the mortgage servicing company. Common errors include late fees generated through questionable accounting and imposed without notice, excessive charges for property inspections and maintenance, and inflated or unnecessary attorneys’ fees.
Many homeowners who have tried to correct what seem to be simple accounting mistakes say that the servicers — often, an arm of a major bank — are unable or unwilling to help them resolve even the most basic problems.
“Every time I would call I’d get a different person,” said William Allen, a retiree near Baltimore who is fighting a Bank of America foreclosure. “I worked on it nearly a year and it didn’t do me any good.”
At best, this round of relief will reach about two million former and current homeowners. Under the agreement, banks will grant some $10 billion worth of principal reduction, $3 billion in refinancings and $7 billion in other mortgage relief, like forbearance for unemployed borrowers, covering roughly one million borrowers in total. Another $1.5 billion will be cash payments of about $2,000 to some 750,000 borrowers who were treated unfairly in foreclosures from 2008 through 2011.
And $3.5 billion will go to state and federal governments for what has been described as resources for legal aid and other counseling for borrowers facing foreclosure. Such aid is vitally important, but it appears that the earmarked money also could be used to plug state budget holes, rather than empower homeowners in their fights against the banks. That would be a mistake.
What do banks get in exchange for the relief? The answer, in short, is a sweet deal.
The banks did not get the blanket release they originally sought from legal liability for all manner of mortgage misconduct. But the settlement still shields them from state and federal civil lawsuits for most foreclosure abuses, including the wrongful denial of loan modifications, excessive late fees that enriched the banks but could make it impossible for borrowers to catch up on late payments, and conflicts of interest that led banks to favor foreclosures over modifications. Going forward, the banks will have to adhere to tougher standards for servicing loans and executing foreclosures. But past sins in servicing and foreclosure are largely absolved.
The banks are not off the hook for criminal prosecutions related to the mortgage mess or for private lawsuits. They are also not off the hook for wrongdoing in their aggressive pooling of mortgages into securities and other practices that inflated the bubble. Thanks for the settlement’s narrower legal releases goes to New York’s attorney general, Eric Schneiderman, and a handful of other state attorneys general, who refused to accept a deal that would have blocked further legal action.
Which brings us back to the question of whether a new investigation will indeed get off the ground. We are skeptical. The Obama administration squandered several months resisting Mr. Schneiderman’s insistence on a broader investigation, raising questions about its willingness to now get tough with the banks and bankers. As a practical matter, that delay has allowed some potential violations to draw closer to expiration under statutes of limitation.