A paralegal, Andy started collecting stories of the servicer’s tactics, compiling them into an as-yet-unpublished 200-page book. He not only fought his own case—it’s still in federal court—but he helped grow six law firms in the Chicago area, to protect others at risk of dispossession. It’s an uphill battle. “I just don’t think a borrower will ever have a real chance of justice or leveling the playing field,” Andy told me last week.
Should Andy exhaust his appeals, he’d join over 9.3 million American families who have lost their properties since the housing bubble collapsed, either to foreclosure or an associated transaction. Given the average household size in the United States, that likely represents more than 20 million people, forced to uproot their lives and find shelter. This had a particularly gruesome effect on people of color, who stored more of their wealth in home equity and were targeted for subprime loans. Coates points out that white households now hold seven times as much wealth as black households; he doesn’t mention how that statistic grew worse under President Obama, mostly because of foreclosures. Former Representative Brad Miller calls the crisis “an extinction event” for the black and Latino middle class.
I agree with Coates that “there is nothing mere about symbols,” and Obama’s meaning to black America looms large. But that achievement must contend with Obama’s culpability for the greatest disintegration of black wealth in recent memory.
If Obama ever reads this critique, I suspect he’d mutter under his breath, as he disclosed to Coates he does habitually when confronted with activist demands. “Where I got frustrated at times was the belief that the president can do anything if he just decides he wants to do it,” Obama grumbles.
Nothing is sadder than a man who disclaims his power to preserve his reputation. The presidency is subject to countless veto points and constraints, but the foreclosure disaster was unique; Congress had already given the incoming president the authority to act.
Obama the candidate ran on allowing bankruptcy judges to cut balances on primary mortgages; Obama’s administration actively whipped against the policy. Obama’s transition team earmarked up to $100 billion in funds appropriated through Bush’s bank bailout to mitigate foreclosures; eight years later only around $21 billion has been spent. Obama the president promised 4 million mortgage modifications; to date less than a million have been successfully achieved.
No Republican sign-off was necessary for Obama’s Home Affordable Modification Program (HAMP). The Treasury Department alone decided to run it through mortgage companies that had financial incentives to foreclose rather than modify loans. Treasury never saw the program as a relief vehicle, but a way to “foam the runway” for the banks, allowing them to absorb inevitable foreclosures more slowly. Homeowners were the foam being crushed by a jumbo jet in that scenario, squeezed for as many payments as possible before ultimately losing their homes.