Page last updated at 23:05 GMT, Thursday, 5 April 2007 00:05 UK

Sub-prime crisis sours US dream

By Justin Webb
BBC News, Maryland

US houses
Many US homeowners find they cannot afford rising mortgage rates
This is a strange place. It's the American dream turning sour before your eyes.

We are miles outside the city of Baltimore, in a suburb built in the middle of nowhere.

At first glance, the road I'm in looks typical of any American suburb. There are well-proportioned detached houses, large gardens, even a boat or two in the driveways.

But there are also signs of decay - rusting paint, broken cars, fallen leaves left unswept on dusty lawns.

On Wall Street they talk about the sub-prime mortgage crisis. On this street, they are living it.

'Complete shock'

Myra Riggs, 61, is the owner of a detached house with a large garden full of trees. She is in danger of losing it.

If that happens, she says, "I guess I'll try to get a room somewhere."

She describes the neighbourhood where she used to live before moving to this house.

This stands to likely be the largest loss of African-American wealth that we have ever seen, wiping out a generation of home wealth building
Mike Calhoon
Center for Responsible Lending

"You had crackheads, dope addicts, you had women who were getting raped, people who were leaving garbage in the hall, and my mother got robbed," she says.

In order to get away from that environment, Myra was tempted into the world of the sub-prime mortgage, where interest rates are kept low at first and then rise to compensate lenders for the low credit ratings of the borrowers.

For Mrs Riggs, the rising payments were a complete shock.

"It's gone up because, stupid me, I didn't know anything about ARMs [adjustable rate mortgages]. It's a rip-off, that's what it is. If anybody has a set rate mortgage, don't change it. ARM is for people with money."

'Challenge poverty'

Speaking after Hurricane Katrina in 2005, President George W Bush told the nation that poverty among black people needed to be addressed and that home ownership was the answer.

House with For Sale sign outside it
Many homeowners are in danger of losing their homes

"We have a duty to challenge this poverty with bold action," he said. "So let us restore all that we have cherished from yesterday and let us rise above the legacy of inequality.

"When the streets are rebuilt, when the houses are rebuilt, more families should own, not rent, those houses."

But black Americans often have bad credit ratings or are the victims of discrimination, so they tend to be given sub-prime loans. And now, with a nationwide housing slump, they are facing disaster.

Mike Calhoon, of the Center for Responsible Lending, says: "Almost half of all African-American family mortgages are sub-prime mortgages.

"Anywhere from one in five to one in three will lose their homes. This stands to likely be the largest loss of African-American wealth that we have ever seen, wiping out a generation of home wealth building."

Terrible price

It is leading some to think the unthinkable - that perhaps homeownership just is not the way to go.

Phillip Robinson, a Baltimore consumer lawyer, says: "Unfortunately not everyone can be a homeowner.

"And so if we are dealt a hand where we are not able to work because of a disability, we shouldn't be put into a loan that we cannot afford.

"Perhaps we should sell the home, get the equity out."

Meanwhile, Mrs Riggs is doing what she can to stay afloat - making pies in her kitchen and selling them to local businesses for a few dollars each.

Late in the day, warning videos have been produced and an effort at financial education has begun.

But for many poor Americans, black and white, the facts are coming too late and a terrible price is being paid.

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