MUNCIE, Ind.—Johnny Whitmire shuts off his lawn mower and takes a long draw from a water bottle. He sloshes the liquid from cheek to cheek and squirts it between his work boots. He is sweating through his white T-shirt. His jeans are dirty. His middle-aged back hurts like hell. But the calf-high grass is cut, and the weeds are tamed at 1900 W. 10th St., a house that Whitmire and his family once called home. “I’ve decided to keep the place up,” he says, “because I hope to buy it back from the bank.”
Whitmire tells a familiar story of how public and private institutions derailed an American’s dream: In 2000, he bought the $40,000 house with no money down and a $620 monthly mortgage. He made every payment. Then, in the fall of 2010, his partially disabled wife lost her state job. “Governor [Mitch] Daniels slashed the budget, and they looked for any excuse to squeeze people out,” Whitmire says. “We got lost in that shuffle—cut adrift.” The Whitmires couldn’t make their payments anymore.
They applied for a trial loan-modification through an Obama administration program, and when it was granted, their monthly bill fell to $473.87. But, like nearly a million others, the modification was canceled. After charging the lower rate for three months, their mortgage lender reinstated the higher fee and billed the family $1,878.88 in back payments. Whitmire didn’t have that kind of cash and couldn’t get it, so he and his wife filed for bankruptcy. His attorney advised him to live in the house until the bank foreclosed, but “I don’t believe in a free lunch,” Whitmire says. He moved out, leaving the keys on the kitchen table. “I thought the bank should have them.”