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Persuading Banks To Give Homeowners A Break

Aug 16, 2012
Originally published on August 21, 2012 4:53 pm

Over the past four years, Bruce Marks has been on a traveling road show to help people avoid foreclosure. His nonprofit, the Neighborhood Assistance Corporation of America, has held more than 80 events in cities around the country. So far, Marks says, NACA has helped 202,000 people get their payments lowered so they can afford to keep their homes.

"The banks now reach out to their borrowers, to their customers, to come to the NACA Save the Dream events so they're doing that because it makes business sense for them," Marks says.

He says he has figured out how to get this broken system to work better. In each city, he rents out a big convention center. All the big banks — Wells Fargo, Bank of America, JPMorgan Chase — send teams of people, sometimes several hundred bank employees altogether. They can approve loan modifications on the spot for homeowners who show up and qualify.

'It's Not Easy'

"It's not easy, you know; it's very, very hard because you work and you know you're trying to make ends meet and trying to get a place for your kids," says Rebecca Asare, an immigrant from Ghana who attended a recent NACA tour event in Worcester, Mass.

In 2009, Asare was working as a technician at a medical device company. But she says the work got outsourced to China. "So there was a layoff and a lot of us had to go home," she says. "So [it became a struggle] with my mortgage because I'm a single mom here; my husband is in Africa."

Asare has since managed to go back to school and get a job as a nursing assistant. She has a decent income and wants to find a way to keep her house.

But Marks says that banks too often foreclose, even in cases where it clearly makes sense to keep people in their home and paying their mortgage at a lower interest rate. Sometimes it's for seemingly crazy reasons — like they're missing a tax document that they already faxed in three times.

"This is the most dysfunctional industry in the world," Marks says.

Building His Own System

The banks disagree, but they admit that their systems were not prepared to handle the scale of the foreclosure crisis.

Four years ago, Marks decided that if the banks' computer systems and call centers were all tangled up and not built to handle the problem, he would build his own system.

"We learned what didn't work," he says. "We kept failing at various things, so then what we learned is we had to go outside of the banks. We had to set up our own systems outside of the way that they do business. In essence we had to do the work for them, and that's what we do."

NACA counselors help homeowners scan all their documents — tax forms, identification, bank statements — into a computer system that the nonprofit developed. If they're missing any papers, they can go home and get them. And NACA organizes all this into an online package for the banks.

When Marks first told the nation's biggest banks he wanted them to patch into his computer system, he says, "they said, 'Never — we don't do that because this is Bank of America, this is Chase, this is Wells [Fargo]. We have our own systems.' "

Putting Pressure On Bank CEOs

But Marks does a pretty good angry bulldog imitation. And when the banks would say no to things like this, he'd round up hundreds of homeowners to protest at the banks' headquarters — even at some CEOs' houses and country clubs.

At one point, in 2009, Marks was targeting JPMorgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon, whose house is on the edge of a lake. "We were going to bring hundreds of people on rafts, going over water to do a beach landing on his property," Marks says.

That protest never actually happened. After Marks started buying up landing rafts for this flotilla, Chase got wind of this. And Marks says the bank agreed to take part in his Save the Dream tours. Marks says Chase has since been a good partner. The bank had no comment.

But while the banks seem to be playing ball with Marks now, sometimes his aggressive style creates conflicts with people you might think would be his friends. During his road shows he has had some turf battles with local housing nonprofits. But the show goes on.

When a homeowner gets approved for help in the Bank of America area, bank employees actually wave plastic clapper noisemakers and ring a gong.

A Positive Answer, Then Relief And Joy

Homeowner Asare sat with mortgage specialist Deanzala Johnson, who told her she qualified to keep her house with a modified and affordable mortgage payment. Asare was overjoyed and called her 12-year-old daughter to share the news that they could stay in their home.

"My daughter says, 'Mommy, can you fix my room back again for me because you pack all the stuff,' " Asare says.

Asare had been so worried about getting foreclosed on that for months her kids had been living out of suitcases, which had been packed in case they had to move.

But now Asare has a clean slate and can keep her house. If she stays current, Bank of America will pay NACA for negotiating a successful outcome, and that helps fund these events.

Of course, not every homeowner has enough income to qualify. "We can't make everyone happy," Johnson says. "That's just basically it. ... We try our best to do what we can as far as we can go."

But for those who do get a loan modification, Marks estimates that more than 90 percent of homeowners keep making their payments after a year.

This week, the group starts two more Save the Dream events — one on Long Island, N.Y., and the other in St. Louis.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning, I'm David Greene.

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

And I'm Renee Montagne.

Let's listen again to something we heard earlier this week. It's the director of the new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, Richard Cordray, describing the way banks' systems help, or rather don't help, homeowners. He calls them broken.

RICHARD CORDRAY: Picture every bad customer service experience you've ever had: calls going unanswered, your paperwork submitted and lost repeatedly.

MONTAGNE: The bureau is pushing the nation's banks to do a better job preventing foreclosures. The banks say they've been making improvements. Still, thousands more Americans slide into foreclosure every week.

As part of our ongoing series on the American Dream, NPR's Chris Arnold has this report on a non-profit that's been helping homeowners get around these problems.

CHRIS ARNOLD, BYLINE: Over the past four years, Bruce Marks has been on a traveling roadshow. It's called the Save the American Dream Tour. His non-profit - it's called NACA - has held more than 80 events in cities around the country. And so far, Marks' groups helped 202,000 people to get their payments lowered so they can afford to keep their homes.

BRUCE MARKS: The banks now reach out to their borrowers to come to the NACA Save the Dream events, so they're doing that because it makes business sense for them.

ARNOLD: Basically, Marks says he's figured out how to get this broken system to work. In each city he rents out a big convention center or a stadium sometimes. And all the big banks - Wells Fargo, Bank of America, JP Morgan Chase - they send teams of people, sometimes it's several hundred bank employees all together. They're all on-site and they can actually approve loan modifications for the homeowners who show up and try to qualify.

REBECCA ASARE: It's not easy, you know. It's very, very hard because you work and you know you're trying to make ends meet and trying to get a place for your kids.

ARNOLD: Rebecca Asare is an immigrant from Ghana. She was at a recent NACA tour event in Worcester, Massachusetts. Back in 2009, Asare was working as a technician at a medical device company. But then she says the work got outsourced.

ASARE: To China, so there was a layoff and a lot of us had to go home. So I became struggling with my mortgage because I'm a single mom here. My husband is in Africa.

ARNOLD: Asare has since managed to go back to school and she's got a job as a nursing assistant. So she has a decent income again and she wants to find a way to keep her house.

But Marks says for years even when it's clearly made sense to keep a family in their home and paying their mortgage - by offering them a lower interest rate - he says the banks too often foreclose anyway, sometimes over seemingly crazy reasons. In some case they're missing a tax document that the homeowner already faxed in three times.

MARKS: This is the most dysfunctional industry in the world.

ARNOLD: The banks, of course, deny that. But they admit that their systems were not prepared to handle the scale of the foreclosure crisis.

In any case, four years ago, Marks decided that if the banks' computers and call centers weren't built to handle the problem, then he'd build his own system.

MARKS: What we did is we learned what didn't work. We kept failing at various things. So then what we learned is we had to go outside of the banks; we had to set up our own systems. In essence we had to do the work for them. And that's what we do.

ARNOLD: So when homeowners show up at these events, before they talk to any bank representatives, NACA counselors help them scan in all their documents into a computer system that NACA developed itself.

MARKS: So this where the counseling gets done. We go through the process here. We're getting all the documents, we scan it in...

ARNOLD: Tax forms, identification, bank statements. If they're missing things, they're told to run home and get them. And NACA organizes all this into a nice, neat package for the banks.

Now, you might imagine when Bruce Marks first told the nation's largest banks he wanted them to patch into his non-profit's computer system...

MARKS: They said never. We don't do that 'cause this is Bank of America, this is Chase, this is Wells, we have our own systems.

ARNOLD: But Marks does a pretty good angry bulldog imitation. And when the banks would say no to things like this, he'd round up hundreds of homeowners and go protest at the banks' headquarters, and sometimes even at some CEO's houses and country clubs. Eventually the banks came around. At one point he was targeting JP Morgan Chase's CEO, Jamie Dimon. This was back in 2009 and it turns out that Dimon's house is on the edge of a lake.

MARKS: We were going to bring hundreds of people's on rafts, going over water to do a beach landing on his property.

ARNOLD: Engines and the whole thing? I mean pontoons...

MARKS: And speakers and the whole thing.

ARNOLD: That protest, though, never actually happened. Because after Marks started buying up landing rafts for this homeowner flotilla, Chase got wind of all this and Marks says the bank quickly agreed to take part in his Save the Dream Tours. Marks says since then Chase has been a very good partner. The bank, though, had no comment.

But while the banks seem to be playing ball with Marks right now, sometimes his aggressive style creates conflicts with people who you might think would be his friends. During his road shows, he's had some turf battles with local housing non-profits, for example, but the show always goes on. What's going on over there?

ASARE: Somebody get approved again.

ARNOLD: When a homeowner gets approved for help over in the Bank of America area, the bank employees actually wave plastic clapper noisemakers and ring a gong. Homeowner Rebecca Asare is sitting over there now with Bank of America mortgage specialist Deanzala Johnson, who told her that she qualified to keep her house with a modified and affordable mortgage payment. Do you remember what she said when she said, okay, you're approved?

(LAUGHTER)

DEANZALA JOHNSON: We clap. We use our clappers and we clap, yeah.

ASARE: I clapped and I was thanking - I was like, thank you, Jesus.

JOHNSON: She did. She was like, I really like you, I want to thank you, and she was like, can I have you number? We really don't - we travel, so we don't have contact numbers.

ASARE: How joyful I am, smiling in my face, everywhere.

ARNOLD: Asare says she's already called her 12-year-old daughter.

ASARE: My daughter says something. Mommy, can you fix my room back again for me because you pack all the stuff?

ARNOLD: Oh, you mean because you had her clothes packed up?

ASARE: Yeah. Because I packed most of it, you know, and moved it to the garage and stuff because I don't - I was getting prepared also.

ARNOLD: It turns out that Asare was so worried about getting foreclosed on that for months the kids had been living out of suitcases. But now Asare has a clean slate and can keep her house. If she stays current, Bank of America will actually pay NACA for negotiating a successful outcome. Of course not every homeowner who shows up here has enough income to qualify. Deanzala Johnson...

JOHNSON: We can't make everyone happy, so that's just basically - I mean we try our best to, you know, do what we can as far as we can go.

ARNOLD: But for those that do get a loan modification, Marks estimates that more than 90 percent of homeowners keep making their payments even after a year. This week, the group starts at two more Save the Dream events, one on Long Island in New York, and the other in St. Louis. Chris Arnold, NPR News, Boston. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.