For millions of Americans, owning a home is the grandest symbol of having accomplished the illusion of the “American Dream”. Being a homeowner signifies success, financial stability and responsibility. I too had the indoctrinated belief to become a homeowner and felt great pride signing all the papers on closing day. Unfortunately, that bliss was short-lived.
My former husband and I had been renters a few years before the thought ever crossed our minds to look into the prospect of home-ownership. Mostly out of curiosity, we decided to meet with a mortgage lender to see what qualifications (if any) we needed and see what the whole lending process entailed.
We set up an appointment with a small local mortgage lender who was sly and charming and offered us a loan right off the bat given that we were both employed and our credit checks came back with decent scores. But the amount of the loan was not calculated right away. We left the meeting overly elated that we too could enter into the world of the elite. Our hard work was paying off. Our savings was enough. We would be homeowners.
We were so disillusioned and eager to have a home of our own for ourselves and our two small children that we short-sightedly signed onto a mortgage that was affordable, but still a heavy financial burden. I was not convinced by the lender to take on a sub-prime 80/20 loan, interest only or a no-doc loan as was originally pitches to us when we first applied. Instead, a conventional loan was readily available with 0% down and we dove head first into it at the worst possible time: the summer of 2008, only a few months before the housing market crash.
Not even a month had passed since we moved in when we received notification via mail from our local mortgage lender that the loan was being sold to a different company called Franklin American. Shortly after that, we received another notice that our mortgage was being sold yet again to Countrywide Financial; who subsequently was bought out by Bank Of America a very short time later. I wasn’t aware that mortgages could be bought and sold on the market like ours was. Then the city sent a letter stating there will be new a tax assessment of all the homes in the area. The result of the new appraisal blindsided us: our home was devalued by 65,000. We were now considered an underwater loan by 124%.
Our marriage fell apart soon after (for personal reasons, not entirely financial) and the balance of the loan was placed solely on my shoulders. I was relieved to hear that President Obama had signed a new bill called the “Making Homes Affordable Program” to help homeowners like me. The bill was geared specifically to help struggling underwater homeowners stay put in their homes by facilitating a loan reduction between the lending bank and the homeowner. Given that my hours at work were reduced due to the economic downturn, and I had lost an entire half of our family income due to impending divorce, I considered this program as a godsend.
I had wasted no time in researching all the details and according to the guidelines, not only did I match all the criteria, but I seemed to be the perfect candidate for it. I was delighted to hear I would be able to keep the roof over my children’s and my own head, eliminating the ongoing fear of escalating debt and homelessness.
I followed every step to perfection. First the initial phone call, which included a very emotional breakdown between myself and the Bank Of America customer service representative. The call delved into my personal life so deeply; I had to start from the beginning and explain to her every detail of my finances and my failed marriage.
I cried. I couldn’t help it. The stress from the unknown had me up late at night and haunted me like a black cloud throughout my day. The customer representative was very understanding and helpful and guided me through the process of applying to the program. The paperwork to fill out arrived within a few days and my spirits were slowly starting to rise; but, that too was very short-lived.
The agreement I had to sign was like a light at the end of the tunnel. I was certain I would get help from them since the conversation I had with the company seemed to go so well in my favor. I had to provide them with a complete financial summary in vivid detail (calculated by an outside non-profit company called MMI). So thorough was the financial summary, I was even asked how much I spent a month to feed my dog. Next was the tax returns, copies of my paychecks and partial-unemployment checks, and the “hardship letter.” The hardship letter, I was advised, should be a hand-written letter explaining the financial crisis that I had fallen into. That was the hardest part of all; writing to a corporation about my life (in great detail) and have complete strangers decide if my story is worthy of help. But the good news was, Bank of America agreed to let me pay 400$ less a month while they reviewed my application! Sleep was finally returning to my daily routine.
I completed all the tasks that were asked of me and faxed over all the materials in a timely manner, as instructed. And my stress was temporarily relieved, now that I could afford my mortgage during the review process. Nine months plus went by. I made every payment on-time and in-full, but still no word on my application. I routinely called Bank of America to check on my status, but all they ever told me was that they are very glad I am showing interest in my modification and that they would note on my file that I am an active participant in my case. A few times they requested duplicate papers that I had already sent in, but just as a precaution asked for them again and I had it faxed to them by the next day at the latest.
The response letter from Bank Of America arrived via FedEx like a package. I even had to sign for it. I tore through the cardboard folder to meet my destiny face to face, all the while smiling that I was going to be permanently relieved from this ongoing nightmare. I read each word slow and clear, careful not to misinterpret, and then I saw it, shocked like a confident student who just failed an exam: DENIED.
I remember so clearly the sinking feeling in my heart, like I was just told that Santa Clause wasn’t real. I was denied entry into program and I had to now pay back all the money they were gracing me for the past nine months, about $4,000. Why was I denied? They claimed that they didn’t have all my paperwork and they tried to blame me for not sending it all in on time.
Shock began to set in. I immediately made a phone call and asked every question I could think of to try to understand exactly why I was denied. I demanded to speak with the supervisor and when I finally reached him (after about an hour) all he kept answering was that they did not receive the necessary paperwork. I frantically debated him over this matter and the only result of the conversation was me filing for an appeal. I asked if I could pay the reduced price during the appeals process and he advised me that was not an option. He also explained to me that if I did not pay back the graced $4,000, they would start foreclosure proceedings.
That word echoed in my head over and over… FORECLOSURE. Foreclosure meant my kids would be without a home. Foreclosure meant I would have ruined credit. Foreclosure meant I would have to start all over again. Foreclosure meant that I failed.
Rage began to set in. I started doing heavy research into other homeowner denials and TARP (Troubles Assets Relief Program) which was money given to the major banks (the big bank bailout of 2009) and never properly used to help homeowners as it was set up to do. In fact, TARP actually gave the incentive to foreclose to the banks because not only would the bank already have the money for the homes in foreclosure, but now they would even have the homes back in their possession!
I made the decision to not give this horrid bank another dime unless they accepted me into the program. I waited patiently while my loan went into default. They sent their photographers out to take shots of my home to see if it were still occupied and maintained. I questioned a man I caught taking photos. He had my entire case history on him. This guy was a third-party hire – a subcontractor - not working directly for Bank of America. More outrage. The annoying phone calls began trying to scare me into making payments. They call 2-3 times a day. Four months later Bank of America had results on my appeal: DENIED. The reason this time? I did not make enough money. Really? Really Bank of America? No kidding! Why again did I apply to the program in the first place?
I made yet another phone call, this time demanding to know what can do to stay my home. Here is the wonderful advice Bank of America gave me: Since I am a waitress by trade, they said if I claim more tips on my tax return I could put myself into a higher tax bracket and therefore make the cut off for the program, regardless of whether or not I actually made that money. Another “helpful” suggestion was that I take on a roommate or someone else should live in my home and help me pay my mortgage. Hmm okay, I really want a stranger in my home with my kids. Excellent advice B of A!!!!
Some more lovely advice via B of A: Short sale. I have heard horror stories from people I know with short sale, the most damning is the fact that in order to short sell, you have to stop making payments and fall behind (this fact did not bother me so much considering I was already behind in payments). Also, the short sale process is long, painful and subject to the whim of the bank and the buyers. Many people have told me they were in the selling process, only to be denied for one crazy reason or another right before closing.
The bank also tried to convince me into Deed in Lieu of Foreclosure, meaning I just hand over the house and deed and walk away. The problem with that would be that I would still have bad credit and nowhere to live.
By this point I was at my wit’s end. I became depressed and reclusive and my credit was destroyed. I felt defeated after over a year-long battle with this giant “too big to fail” mega-bank.
I was about to give up, sign on for a short sale or Deed in Lieu and move out, when I stumbled across an article on Zerohedge.com that led me to a campaign for homeowners to demand they see their original mortgage note to prove the bank does/does not hold it and therefore may/may not be able to foreclose.
This was something I never heard of before since my war with the bank began, and considering my mortgage was sold three times I could be a potential victim of fraud. I sent an email to the bank demanding to see my note and they did respond in the twenty-days they are required by law to do so. What did they send me?? A copy of my mortgage note that may not have even been the proper document to send. Besides, I wanted to see the original wet-ink note that they should have on their files. I even offered to meet a courier within a hundred miles from my home just to prove to me they have it. Their answer? They were not required by law to show me the note even if I asked for it. What a load of lies! It is my bank note with my signature on it, of course they have to show it to me if I ask to see it, especially in these circumstances. So I sent them another email request to see my note and was denied yet again. This was leading me to believe that Bank of America didn’t have possession of my note and therefore may not have any legal possession of my home.
It was right about this time that I had a final bomb drop: I listened to a report on NPR about how banks can come back and sue short sale/foreclosure victims for the default money owed.
It was then I decided I had to see a lawyer for bankruptcy/foreclosure. I had a free consultation with a local bankruptcy lawyer referred to me by my divorce lawyer (who was wonderful in helping me get sole legal custody of my kids). When we met, he was totally amazed and on the edge of his seat by my Bank of America horror story. His advice? I could not file for bankruptcy since the mortgage was my only debt.
He concluded the bank would not try to sue me in the end because I have no possessions or assets to come after. He was, I might add, totally impressed with my keen knowledge of the foreclosure process and my willingness to duke it out with a mega-corporate bank. He also kept talking to me – free of charge – and giving me legal advice even while other clients waited outside his office. His final words to me were “When the sheriff comes knocking at your door with intention to foreclose, call me and I will refer you to the best lawyer around.” I really hate to say it, but that guy was a decent human being, you know, for being a lawyer and all.
So where am I today, three years into the dispute? Still in my house waiting for the sheriff to deliver my move-out papers. And according to the lawyer, even when the sheriff does show up, I have an average of 900 days before the sheriff sale actually occurs and I absolutely have to move out. I still receive 2-3 phone calls a day from Bank of America and they still photograph my house and send me threatening letters from their office and from their corporate lawyers. I am acting responsible and taking care of my home; doing all the yard-work and paying all the utility bills. I finally sleep through the night and the financial stress has been lifted from my shoulders. I live day-to-day, enjoying every moment with my children and when the sheriff finally arrives, I will greet him with a grin because that’s when a phone call is made to the heavy-hitter lawyer and the real battle begins. Bring it on B of A, I’m ready.
Andrea Egizi is an anti-war activist involved in the organization of Occupy Atlantic City