I can't say I'm surprised at the way the LA Times painted the story of Ana Wilson and her foreclosure nightmare. Scott, the Times on-scene business reporter (yeah, they sent a business reporter), spoke with me at length about the complexities of the nation's foreclosure crisis. Complexities, he said, that made it difficult for him to understand the nuances in cases like Ana's. How could so many people feel entitled to get out of an agreement they signed?
Scott was leaving the Wilson residence as I arrived. I was handed a sort of press release by a fellow activist in the kitchen which outlined the series of events leading up to the eviction of the Wilsons from their South Gate home. It said, in simple terms, that Ana had been born with cerebral palsy, and her family had lived at this residence since 1975. Several years ago, around the same time as the peak of the lending fraud crisis, Ana was diagnosed with stage four breast cancer. In 2009, a nice, educated woman in an expensive-looking pantsuit came from Wells Fargo and assured the Wilsons that in order to keep up with her medical costs and their mortgage, the family should refinance their home loan. Their payments would be lower, said the woman, and it was the right thing to do. After all, the pants-suited woman, Tricia, was a professional loan officer from Wells Fargo. If anyone knew when to refinance, it would be Tricia.
Having discussed the foreclosure crisis with business reporters from Fox, the Times, and others, the business reporter angle seems unfaltering: those people should have known better. Entering into a loan agreement you can't afford to pay back is obviously a bad idea -- but how obviously? What each of these reporters fails to recognize -- and report on -- are several things.
1. Most of these people "playing victim" did not refinance their mortgages to buy a jetski and an Xbox. Many families who entered into refinance agreements or reverse-mortgages did it because they were facing the very real choice between losing their home and being able to send their kids to college or feed their families. Ana, on top of her lifelong medical costs for CP, now had to pay for chemotherapy treatments and surgeries for her breast cancer. Blaming this backlash on "greedy, entitled" Americans is not only unfair, it's impossible to prove. Because it's untrue.
2. While contemplating whether she'd ever live to be a grandmother, Ana probably didn't find it practical to do weeks of research in order to find out if she was getting a raw deal on her refinanced mortgage. She paid Tricia the Wells Fargo Loan Expert for that. Like millions of others, Ana was assured by her expert that if she didn't take action, she could reach a point where it was impossible to continue making her payments. So, like any intelligent person would do in that situation, she took the advice of her expert.
3. Claims of banker fraud -- from bankers -- have been pouring out of every major lending company since 2009. The few former company officials whose morals remained intact were let go for their ethical objections. But what they exposed to the public should not go ignored (as it has, for example, in the above Times piece). For years, there have been identical claims of outright mortgage and lending fraud by brokers and loan officers from Countrywide (now part of Bank of America), JPMorgan Chase, and America's Servicing Company (that's Wells Fargo, Ana's bank). Loan officers listed false information on paperwork in order to issue loans to families who would not have qualified for such large amounts of money. Some even clipped signatures from documents, pasted them onto others, and photocopied them to look real. These officers were paid for the quantity of loans they issued, not the quality. So many did whatever they could to push these loans onto families that they knew would never be able to pay them back. And families like Ana's, who had hired these loan officers to help them, were only told to sign on the dotted line. Shame on her, right?
4. I saw the loan documents. Actually, Scott asked me to. And I appreciate that, because what I found did more for Ana than it would have for Wells Fargo. Tricia never even signed these loan agreements. In fact, after scouring through paperwork for hours, I was unable to find Tricia's last name anywhere. Or her first name, for that matter. But I trust that Ana remembers the name of the suited woman who played her like a fiddle.
5. If a person is scammed on eBay, the scammer can face charges. If a person is scammed in a refinancing scheme, that person deserves to lose their home? No. Scamming is illegal. Scammers go to prison. That's how that works. It's not actually as complicated as it sounds.
I appreciate that the Times article listed all the details, quite accurately, so that I don't have to. But the article lacked absolutely critical elements to Ana's side of the story (a side that Scott admittedly had trouble understanding). So I felt that it was only right that I do my best to issue an addendum to an otherwise informative tale of foreclosure woes.
Ana, thank you for letting me hang out at your house yesterday. It's easy for someone to walk into your living room and spend fifteen minutes asking you questions about numbers, but getting to know you and your family (and your awesome dog) taught me a few things: you're not stupid, you're not irresponsible, you got played, and you're not asking for anything but justice. Justice the system owes to you, ASC owes to you, Tricia owes to you, and the Department of Justice particularly owes to you and every other victim like you.
The banks may not realize it yet (or maybe they do), but they've created a monster. Every family forced to fight this injustice is quickly becoming an expert on the foreclosure process -- and soon, these banks, guilty of thousands of counts of fraud, will no longer be able to prove their case against the hundreds of thousands of families they've wronged. Because they've accidentally educated them, too.
More photos, and a video of a particularly informative discussion in the Wilson's living room, to come later today.