Page last updated at 08:14 GMT, Monday, 5 November 2007

Foreclosure wave sweeps America

By Steve Schifferes
BBC economics reporter, Cleveland, Ohio

two boarded up houses in Cleveland
Thousands of abandoned houses in Cleveland have been vandalized

A wave of foreclosures and evictions is about to sweep the United States in the wake of the sub-prime mortgage lending crisis.

This could destabilise the US housing market and may also lead to further turmoil in financial institutions, who collectively own $1 trillion (480.6bn) worth of sub-prime debt.

Cleveland, Ohio, is an industrial city on the banks of Lake Erie in the US "rust belt".

It is the sub-prime capital of the United States. One in ten homes in the city is now vacant, and whole neighbourhoods have been blighted by foreclosed, vandalized and boarded-up homes.

Families all over the country continue to lose homes in record numbers, stripping families of their wealth and destroying entire neighbourhoods
Michael J Calhoun
Center for Responsible Lending

Many of these homes are now owned by the banks and investment pools owning the mortgages, and the company making the most foreclosures in Cleveland is Deutsche Bank Trust, which acts on behalf of such investment pools.

Cleveland is facing a rising crime wave, and the cost of demolishing the vacant houses alone will cost the city $100m of its tax base.

According to Jim Rokakis, the County Treasurer for Cleveland's Cuyahoga County, "Wall Street strategies that made the cycle of no-money-down, no-questions-asked lending possible have sucked the life out of my city".


Sub-prime lending Black areas
Foreclosures (repossessions) Deutsche Bank properties

Sub-prime crisis growing

Sub-prime lending is spreading across the United States, especially in the booming housing markets of Southern California, Florida, Washington, DC, and New York City.

Growth of sub-prime lending

One in five US mortgages now falls in this category. As the credit crunch continues to bite "families all over the country continue to lose homes in record numbers, stripping families of their wealth and destroying entire neighbourhoods," says Michael Calhoun of the Center for Responsible Lending, which tracks these issues.

Sub-prime mortgages carry a much higher risk of default by the borrower than other kinds of mortgage lending.

That is because most of them are "balloon" mortgages (technically known as hybrid-adjustable rate mortgages, or ARMs), which offer the borrower a fixed-rate loan for two or three years, and then switch to a much higher adjustable rate after that.

Everyone is going to feel this credit crunch to some extent
Turned Worm

Many of them are set to switch in the next two years, leaving borrowers unable to afford the higher payments.

There have already been 1.7 million foreclosure proceedings in the US in the first eight months of 2007, and up to 2 million families are expected to lose their homes over the next two years, according to estimates by the US Congress's Joint Economic Committee.

Crisis origins

But why have so many people in the US taken out sub-prime mortgages?

Foreclosures in the US

The sub-prime lending market started as a way of lending to people with poor credit history - as long as they had collateral like a house that could be used to guarantee the loan.

It was particularly prevalent in inner-city areas, especially among black and Hispanic borrowers.

Many of these mortgages were sold by unscrupulous and little regulated mortgage brokers, who received handsome commissions for selling expensive and unsuitable products.

Some customers were not told that their interest rates would go up sharply after two years; others were promised they could refinance their home before higher rates took effect.

Others found that when they had difficulties paying, huge unexplained fees were added to their bills, putting them further in debt.

Marion's story

One person hard hit is Marion Gardner, who lives in one of the worst affected sub-prime lending areas of Cleveland, known as Slavic Village.

Marion in her home in Cleveland that she is about to lose
Marion has spent 30 years raising a family in her home

A single parent, she had worked hard to buy a house where she could raise her two children and escape from the misery of the inner-city housing projects.

Two years ago Marion fell ill, and found she could not manage the stairs in her house.

She decided to refinance her home, using some of the money to buy an apartment where she could more easily manage.

She gave her old house to her two sons, expecting they would contribute to paying for the property she had struggled so hard to obtain. But the sons fell behind in their payments.

Marion went to her lender - Countrywide, the biggest sub-prime lender in the US - and offered to pay off all the arrears.

She said they accepted her offer, and began sending them $1,000 every month, using up her retirement savings.

But after six months she discovered that instead of clearing her arrears, her home was going to be foreclosed by Countrywide.

She still visits the house every day, trying to protect if from drug dealers and burglars, and leaves her dog in the backyard.

But she can see all along her street dozens of foreclosed properties that have been vandalised, boarded up, or gutted.

Now she has learned that a date has been set for the sheriff to come and evict her.

Deceptive practices?

Mark Seifert, the director of the East Side Organising Project (ESOP) in Cleveland, which has played a leading role in helping people affected by the sub-prime crisis, says Marion's story is typical.

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He says lenders engaged in deceptive practices and clients found it difficult to get any information at all when they got into arrears.

Mr Seifert says that ESOP - using protest tactics - has managed to get a few mortgage companies to sign a deal agreeing a uniform set of criteria to decide whether someone's mortgage qualifies for renegotiation rather than foreclosure.

But he says they have been unable to reach such an agreement with Countrywide, the nation's largest sub-prime lender - although its boss has promised to meet them.

Spreading to the suburbs

The crisis has spread beyond the inner city to the suburbs of Cleveland.

Last month over 200 people turned up at a church meeting to seek ESOP's help in avoiding foreclosure.

ESOP meeting in Cleveland, Ohio
Worried homeowners meet to "Save the American Dream"

Some, such as Ron Todd, who lives in a suburb just south of the city, are in danger of losing their home after being made redundant by Northwest Airlines, a big local employer.

Others are worried that their neighbourhoods - and the property values of their own houses - will be ruined by the foreclosures all around them.

According to Claudia Coulton, co-director of the Centre for Urban Poverty at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, over 10,000 families - one in eight of all owner occupiers in Cleveland - will face eviction this year - and the number is expected to rise.

She says the crisis is threatening to "overwhelm the government agencies and community organisations that address the problem".

Nationwide problem

Cleveland's situation is not unique.

All around the country, aid agencies report a "tidal wave" of foreclosure cases, says Sarah Gerecke, director of New York City's Neighborhood Housing Services.

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She now employs six people full-time to provide mortgage debt counselling, up from one just two years ago, and could use another 12.

Her concern is that many recently regenerated neighbourhoods in New York will soon be blighted by crisis again.

Some people argue that the sub-prime lending crisis has been caused by irresponsible borrowers who lied about their income to cash in on the housing boom. Ms Gerecke disagrees. She says few of her clients would knowingly put their home at risk.

Many sub-prime borrowers report that mortgage brokers misrepresented the kind of mortgage they were being offered, their annual income, and even the value of their home.

Working together?

President George W Bush's administration wants to solve the foreclosure crisis by getting lenders and borrowers to renegotiate the terms of loans.

There is a natural level of foreclosures that goes on in an economy in good times and bad... it's part of the nature of how our economy works
Robert Steel
US Treasury Under Secretary for Domestic Finance

It is pledging more money for advice services, and has been urging key lenders to take a more sympathetic approach.

Robert Steel, the US Treasury Under Secretary for Domestic Finance, told the BBC that the government's role was "to ensure that lenders and servicers are being flexible with regard to working with borrowers".

He added that no policy could eliminate foreclosures altogether because there was "a natural level of foreclosures that goes on in an economy in good times and bad... it's part of the nature of how our economy works."

But according to Mark Zandi, chief economist for Moody's, only 1% of sub-prime mortgages have been renegotiated rather than foreclosed so far.

Ms Gerecke says a piecemeal approach involving millions of individual renegotiations will not work. Each case takes hours of negotiations, and the mortgage companies' loan loss departments are overwhelmed by the crisis.

A way out?

The only way out, says Ms Gerecke, would be national loan terms agreed for the whole industry.

One such plan has been proposed by Sheila Bair, head of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC), one of the key banking regulators.

She told the BBC that sub-prime interest rates should not be reset if the borrower has kept up all payments and is not in arrears.

But such a deal is proving extremely difficult to reach, given that thousands of investors around the world own a share of these sub-prime mortgages.

Meanwhile Marion still sits in her Cleveland home every day, trying to stop it being vandalised even though she knows it is merely a matter of time before she will be evicted.

"I am just really working for the banks now, protecting their property from damage," she says.

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