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Last Updated: Monday, 29 October 2007, 12:18 GMT
American Nightmare
By Sam Benstead
Producer, This World

The crisis in US subprime mortgages has fallen hard on the city of Cleveland, Ohio, where as many as one in six households have been affected.

Eleanor Hall
Eleanor Hall is facing homelessness after taking out a mortgage
Eleanor Hall is a single mother with two children and has a steady job as a market researcher. Five years ago she bought a house which she has lovingly restored.

What she didn't realise was that her mortgage was a subprime - a home loan designed for people with a low income or bad credit. They cost more than ordinary mortgages to cover the risk of the banks making the loan.

Now, she is unable to pay and left facing homelessness. "I'm truly at rock bottom," she says, "and I have nowhere else to go".

Eleanor is not alone - over two million families are expected to lose their homes in the US within the next couple of years.

The eviction sheriffs

Evictions have affected one in six Cleveland households since 2000
In Cleveland the cost of clearing the human debris come eviction day falls to the Cuyahoga County Sheriff Department.

"I feel like an undertaker," says Jeff, a veteran of neighbourhood policing who has seen evictions in his section jump since he joined the force from 12 a week to over 90 a week. He has to evict families, old people and even, on occasion, his own relatives.

The result is a city blighted by house repossessions - with one in six households in Cleveland have faced eviction proceedings since 2000. Due to a glut of houses on the property market, house prices have crashed. Banks can no longer sell the properties on and they are left derelict and deserted.

"It has ripped the heart out of our neighbourhood," says Toni Brancatelli, a lifelong Cleveland resident. He has seen gangs and squatters move in to the empty homes, fuelling crime and social decay.

The majority of those defaulting on their mortgages are people living on the poverty line, tipped into defaulting on their mortgage by rising medical bills, unemployment, utility bills and one of the most contentious elements to this crisis - 'predatory lending'.

The Wild West of lending

So who is to blame - the borrower, the broker or the lender? Clearly, it is partly the system itself. US subprime lenders were not required to perform stringent checks on borrower's credit ratings. The result is "ninjas" - loans sold to people with "no income, no job and no assets".

Map of Cleveland, Ohio
"This was the Wild West of lending but there was no sheriff in town," says Jim Rokakis, County Treasurer for the Cleveland area. He has been asking for anti-predatory lending legislation to be passed in Ohio County for years but claims that no-one would listen. Now he is incandescent with anger.

"There has been blood flowing on the streets of Cleveland but nobody cared. The only time anyone listened was when blood flowed on the only street that matters in this country, and that's Wall Street".

'The smoking gun'

The subprime mortgages, taken out by people in Cleveland and all over the US, have since been sold on to investors all over the world. Everyone in the system - the brokers, the lenders, the investment appraisers - took their cut and the returns were good. But, as it turns out, so were the risks.

"We found the smoking gun, and everyone's fingerprints were on it," says Mark Seifert, director of ESOP, a local poverty action group.

When the mortgages went bad, the securities became worthless and the money dried up on the markets. The result is a global credit crunch, which has been felt in Britain through the bank run on Northern Rock.

Although the markets may yet correct themselves, for the people of Cleveland the damage has already been done.

"I don't ever see myself owning a home again," says Eleanor Hall. She, like millions of other subprime mortgage borrowers in America, bought into the American dream of owning your own home, only for that dream to become a nightmare.

This World: American Nightmare will be broadcast on Monday 29 October 2007 at 1900 GMT on BBC Two.

Effort to ease US mortgage woes
17 Apr 07 |  Business

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