My father arrived in this country from Europe in the late 1940s with a love of all things American but was especially fond of the post-war boom in emerging technology. To satisfy this hunger, he bought himself a new-fangled Webcor reel-to-reel tape recorder replete with a throbbing green "magic eye" (to monitor audio levels) and with much pomp and circumstance would place me and it in front of our very small screen black and white TV. He wanted to memorialize the soundtracks of his favorite TV programs for his future listening pleasure but didn't have the patience to sit for several hours while, for instance, NBC broadcast a live performance of Madame Butterfly. In his stead I was delegated to keep watch over the slowly spinning reels and when the tape ran out quickly slap on a fresh roll without losing too much of the audio (I got quite good at this). Some of the programs were memorable, like the aforementioned Madame Butterfly, but others were unforgettable and in that category I'd place Edward R. Murrow's classic 1960 documentary, Harvest of Shame.
Harvest of Shame revealed a story that most Americans knew virtually nothing about: the plight of migrant farm workers who toiled for little pay and even less protection from abuse as they harvested the fruits and vegetables consumed daily by millions of Americans. While farming interests (Agri-Business, as we'd call them today) tried their darndest to keep the story under wraps it was the pioneering efforts of crusaders like Murrow who finally kicked over the beast to reveal its dark underbelly. Timed for broadcast right after Thanksgiving of 1960, the documentary shocked American viewers with its brutal reality and set the stage for significant reforms.
Now, more than 50 years later, another story is waiting to be told, fully, and trying their darndest to keep this one from prying eyes is the Financial Services Industry. This story concerns the plight of millions of Americans either foreclosed upon or waiting to be fed into the maws of this beast. Foreclosure is like a Godzilla with a penchant -- like its namesake -- for sweeping through communities leaving devastation and destruction in its wake. Unfortunately there are no modern-day Edward R. Murrow's with the requisite weight and authority to call attention to this scandal and mainstream media interest, like the tides, ebbs and flows depending on what else is looming large in the breaking news category. There was a flurry of interest earlier in the year when the Fed and the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency crushed the so-called Independent Foreclosure Reviews ("IFR's") but the ADD-challenged news organizations have moved on and with a lack of media scrutiny and absence of regulatory intervention the foreclosure rate has risen accordingly.
Foreclosure is a cancer that's yet to be placed in remission and while vacant houses currently provide rich fishing for hedge funds and institutional investors, hoovering in properties for so called REO-to-Rental schemes or just using them in hold 'em or fold 'em strategies designed to game the housing market, it seems that any discussion of collateral damage (i.e. homeowners) has fallen off the media radar.
How bad has the crisis become? A new report, "Wasted Wealth," written by the Alliance for a Just Society and distributed by the Home Defenders League and the New Bottom line highlighted some frightening facts, namely: more than 13 million homes are still underwater and in danger of entering foreclosure. The report tells another tale: The amount of accumulated wealth made to vaporize by the banker's machinations is astronomical; in 2012 alone, according to the report, foreclosures picked the pockets of American homeowners to the tune of 192.6 billion (dealing its severest blow to communities of color).
As one of the producers of the Pacific Street Films documentary Foreclosure Diaries, I've watched this contemporary Harvest of Shame continue to claim victims and we've been able to document some these stories since production began in 2007. While little attention was paid to the foreclosure problem prior to the 2010 revelations of robo-signing and assorted shenanigans, since that time there's been a rising tide of anger and this has found expression in the proliferation of Occupy groups and community organizations with a "no more foreclosures" agenda. It's hard to say where all this will lead but the anti-eviction efforts of individuals like Willie Fleming in the devastated inner-city of Chicago have drawn national media attention. While the Louis XVIs and Marie Antoinettes in the Mega-Banking community continue to ignore these activities as blips of no major consequence they may be underestimating the potential for an anti-eviction movement to rise to the epic proportions of its civil rights and anti-war predecessors.
Here are a few examples of homeowners who've refused to go quietly into the night:
Bob and Stacy Schmidt: If you want to witness, firsthand, what it's like to be evicted from your home watch what happens to Bob Schmidt, a middle-class Maryville, Tenn., resident, who along with his wife and two sons are brutally hustled out of their home by local sheriffs (it caps off this segment drawn from Foreclosure Diaries). The 2007 foreclosure, engineered by Litton Loan Servicing on behalf of a Deutsche Bank, sent the Schmidts to the mat but they didn't stay down for the count. Quite the contrary. Despite ailing health and an unsympathetic court Bob Schmidt -- who shouted "mortgage servicing fraud" well before the term became fashionable -- has relentlessly sought out documents that prove fraud perpetrated on the court was part and parcel of Deutsche Bank's foreclosure schemes. Currently, with help from a loosely organized matrix of researchers and recently surfaced information, Bob and Stacy Schmidt are prepared to take the battle into the courts once again in an effort to win their home back.
Robert and Ana Somerton of Cobb California have been doing battle with Bank of America since 2010, when they first sought a loan modification. BoA did its typical tap dance asking for reams of documents before turning down any and all requests for assistance saying, alternatively, that the Somertons wouldn't qualify for a HARP loan because they "didn't earn enough" per month, then shortly after, denying them a trial modification claiming they had "earned too much" over one two-week pay period. At one point with foreclosure looming Robert Somerton powered up a bulldozer and threatened, with support from his neighbors, to destroy his home rather than let BoA seize the property. Further interactions with the bank -- after filing for bankruptcy protection -- rose to the level of high comedy as Robert began filming his interactions with local BoA bank managers who in one instance, for some bizarre reason, refused to take cash for a mortgage payment. On another occasion a BoA manager had him arrested for trespassing (he's currently suing BoA for false arrest).
When it comes to shattering already shattered lives foreclosure is an equal opportunity destroyer and no matter how difficult the homeowner's circumstance, Mega-Bankers turn a blind eye to the carnage as Harolyn Rhue, a partly disabled middle aged Altadena, Calif., homeowner found out. A loan modification she sought with Wells Fargo after medical expenses drained her pocketbook proved an exercise in futility (Wells placed her in foreclosure) so she reached out to Los Angeles-based Occupy Fights Foreclosure, which put boots on the ground in her defense. What followed next was a pull right out of Wells Fargo's play book for dealing with recalcitrant homeowners in non-judicial states (where foreclosures don't need court approval). The bank turfed the responsibility for getting its hands dirty by selling her house to a third party investor. As the new owner unceremoniously dumped Harolyn on the street the Wells Fargo PR department responded to a press inquiry with a "not our problem anymore" defense. Occupy has responded with its own plans for a June 22 event, titled, "Move Your Money out of Wells Fargo Day." The quicker the better.
Matt Murray: A Michigan video producer also made best efforts to deal with his servicer aka Bank of America. A family man with two daughters, one of whom had been struck with a debilitating illness, Matt struggled to keep them all in place forking over $43,000 in accumulated mortgage payments while trying to negotiate down BoA's monthly "vig" (payment, in mob parlance). Not good enough for the Mega-Bank that once called Anthony Mozilo of Countrywide fame a great friend and a valuable asset and retaliated against Mr. Murray's best efforts by sending in the Sheriff's one morning in April to escort the family out of hearth and home. Matt has retaliated by putting his creative skills to good use, producing and distributing a compelling video about his situation, and by extension, calling attention to millions of others who also share his family's uncertain future.
Foreclosure's Harvest of Shame will continue to savage our communities until enough people finally get sick of it, stand together and shout out in one voice, "enough!" Confronting bullies no matter what size, shape or corporate configuration should be the sworn moral duty of every citizen.
Perhaps Holocaust survivor Eli Wiesel said it best in this sentiment: "I swore never to be silent whenever and wherever human beings endure suffering and humiliation. We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented."
Joel Sucher, a filmmaker with Pacific Street Films in Hastings-on-Hudson, NY is working on Foreclosure Diaries, a documentary about the financial crisis and has blogged on foreclosure related issues for both American Bankerand The Huffington Post.