Mortgage crisis hits home for working families

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By the time Audrey Buchite finished recounting her family’s financial fall to the brink of losing their Zimmerman home, you could hear a pin drop in Sen. Norm Coleman’s public forum on the mortgage and foreclosure crisis.

A special education paraprofessional, Buchite and her husband, Randy, a residential framer, took out a 30-year, fixed-rate mortgage to buy their home. But as the Twin Cities housing market slowed, Randy found jobs hard to come by, and the family struggled to make its house payments.

Now, Audrey says, the Buchites have sacrificed all they can. Randy spends most of the week working a low-wage job in Brainerd, away from his family. Their oldest daughter graduated from high school last spring, gave her parents her college savings and took a job at Walgreen’s.

“Our savings are gone,” Audrey told Sen. Coleman and a panel of housing and lending industry representatives at the forum Nov. 20 in Minneapolis. “We’ve lost our health insurance. Our life insurance is about to go, and our credit rating will suffer.”

The Buchites are hardly alone.

Nationally, foreclosures have more than tripled in the past few years, and core cities have been hit hardest. Minnesota, Coleman said, “leads the nation in home ownership,” but the state’s foreclosure rate ranks fourth nationally – and not in a good way. The Twin Cities area alone will see an estimated $1.6 billion in lost property as a result of foreclosures.

What is Coleman’s answer to the swelling foreclosure crisis? It’s muddled, at best.

At the forum, the senator vowed to “raise the clarion call” to his colleagues on the issue, and he pledged to push more federal resources into mortgage counseling that would steer home buyers away from subprime and adjustable-rate loans.

Coleman also touted his proposal to allow homeowners in danger of defaulting on bad loans to draw down their retirement savings without facing tax penalties, as long as those withdrawals are paid back within three years.

Critics, though, say Coleman is fiddling while Rome burns.

For starters, statistics show that families in danger of losing their homes as a result of bad loans are less likely than most others to contribute to retirement savings accounts.

Brandon Nessen, executive director of Minnesota ACORN, a grassroots group that has been organizing communities around the issue of housing since 1981, said the overwhelming majority of families his organization counsels through foreclosures “do not have major investments that they can tap into.”

“I don’t think that Norm Coleman’s proposal comes close to addressing the foreclosure crisis in a meaningful way for average Minnesotans,” Nessen said. “The nature of the senator’s proposal really reflects a major disconnect and misunderstanding of the issue.”

Instead, critics say Coleman’s approach to the mortgage crisis reveals his loyalty to the financial corporations that created the mess in the first place. In fact, the CEO of the Mortgage Bankers Association called Coleman’s legislation “the kind of flexible, creative solution” the country needs.

That drew sharp derision from Coleman’s former political party. In a statement, the Minnesota DFL labeled his plan “superficial” and in line with Republicans’ “tried and true” practice of putting corporate interests first.

According to Nessen, real progress on the issue will not come until lawmakers put homeowners first and hold lenders accountable for selling bad loans.

“Families were convinced to take an adjustable-rate mortgage when they first bought the home or when they were convinced to refinance,” Nessen said. “And they were told by their mortgage broker they would be able to refinance again before the rate adjusted, so they wouldn’t have to worry about making that increased payment.

“Not only were the mortgage brokers unethical for convincing families face to face to take bad mortgage products, but also the mortgage industry and the large investors behind those companies are responsible for the mess that’s been created.”

Nessen called the anti-predatory lending law passed in Minnesota last spring a good start – and a good model for Congress to follow. The law puts the onus on lenders to verify borrowers’ ability to repay loans, legally requires lenders and brokers to act in borrowers’ best interests and regulates kickbacks lenders give brokers for selling loans.

Many of those provisions are in the Mortgage Reform and Anti-Predatory Lending Act, introduced in the U.S. House this fall with strong backing from the AFL-CIO.

Further steps advocated by the AFL-CIO and groups like ACORN include requiring the lending industry to work with homeowners on loan modifications that would allow families to remain in their homes, and funding community outreach to identify families at risk of foreclosure before proceedings begin.

Time, though, is of the essence. With about 2.5 million adjustable-rate mortgages scheduled to reset to higher rates next year, lawmakers like Coleman need to act now to keep families like Audrey Buchite’s from losing their homes.

“Unless things turn around,” Buchite said, “there are a lot of people that are going to be in trouble.”

Michael Moore edits The Union Advocate, the official publication of the St. Paul Trades & Labor Assembly. Visit the Assembly’s website, www.stpaulunions.org

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