As I sat in George and Veronica Gallon’s kitchen, listening to them describe their months-long tussle with the mortgage industry, I couldn’t avoid the obvious conclusion: They’d made bad choices. Listening to them describe each small step along the road to foreclosure was like watching a predictable horror film.
Put that promotional flyer down!
No, no, don’t sign that document, you fool!
Can’t you see that broker’s lying?
The exploding interest rates at the end were no more unexpected than Jason’s return. So why didn’t they see the terror coming, too? The easy answers are greed, irresponsibility and a level of comfort with consumer debt that’s sadly typical in modern America—particularly among black folks and poor folks.
But I’ve been talking to borrowers like the Gallons—including those in my own family—for the past year as I’ve covered the foreclosure crisis for The Nation and The Root. Some typically American emotions have recurred, to be sure, but not the ones we always hear about with subprime loans and maxed-out credit cards. Rather, borrowers like the Gallons were guided by two articles of faith in which we typically place great stock: an optimistic belief in a more profitable tomorrow and a trust that the checks and balances of market and government would protect them.
So it was predictable, then, that the current crisis would disproportionately hit black and brown Americans. Stereotypes aside, we are America’s most hopeful and trustful communities. We’ve had to be. As individuals, as families and as communities, it has taken ample servings of both emotions to propel us forward, generation by generation. Which is why the banking industry’s eagerness to prey upon our hope and our trust ranks among its greatest crimes.
The tidy life the Gallons have built in their quiet, suburban neighborhood on Jacksonville, Fla.’s north side stands in deliberate contrast to their roots. They both grew up “across the bridge,” as local parlance has it, in the city’s long-stagnant black neighborhoods. George got his lifelong interest in law enforcement while watching the segregated neighborhood’s black cops eat at his mom’s restaurant. Veronica became a caretaker, growing up in a family of 15 siblings with no money.
They met at a backyard barbeque George hosted while he was recruiting for the Jacksonville sheriff’s office. Veronica’s sister was his secretary. “He came out and dropped ribs at my feet, and we been together ever since,” Veronica laughs. That was more than 20 years ago.
They never had kids of their own, but Veronica is an administrator at a school for severely disabled youth, and she’s as quick as any mom to whip out cute photos of her favorite students. “They give up on ’em too quick,” she complains. She sees untapped potential where others see only disability. She’s always optimistic.
In 2000, the Gallons leased their one-story brick home in a fussy-looking subdivision and began living their middle-class dream. Twin palm trees squat at the edge of their property, marking the walkway up to a wide, columned porch. Matching wooden flag poles poke out of each house’s lawn. It’s a peaceful, convenient home where they can revel in each other. Or, it was until they decided to buy it.
Things went badly from the start. The owner told them he wanted to sell, and they had to buy him out or move. They scrounged up a couple of loans to cover the asking price, but the smaller of the two fell through. In the messy deal that followed, George argues the owner took advantage. But it’s hard to dismiss that outsized optimism that made the purchase seem feasible in the first place. Either way, it pushed them over the debt edge, and they filed bankruptcy.
They were about halfway through a five-year bankruptcy plan when George looked at his mail and saw a pamphlet from Premier Mortgage, a Clearwater-based subprime giant that was barred from five states before going bust in 2007. “I had tried previously to refinance my mortgage, and nobody was interested because I was in bankruptcy,” George recalls. He stares down at the awesome array of documents scattered and stacked on his kitchen table. “I don’t know why, but I called the guy. I don’t know. It was just the way it was presented. It seemed so—magical.”
From there, the Gallons’ story is depressingly familiar: The equity the broker promised quickly evaporated into fees; when George tried to call the deal off, he got vague threats of having to pay fines he didn’t understand; before they knew it, they were signing dense documents sent via a messenger who had no answers to their questions and less patience for their indecision.
But the Gallons were hopeful—or maybe worn down and desperate, depending on your perspective. Mainly, they bought the standard subprime-broker sell: that this deal, even if not ideal, had to last only a couple years, and then it’d qualify them for something better.
“I can live with this for two years,” George recalls thinking, trying to explain the sort of choice so many observers now condemn as irresponsible and greedy. “I’m out of bankruptcy. I got a fresh start. In two years, I reestablish my credit, and now I’m in a position where I can do some things to improve and better myself.”
Except, of course, he wasn’t. He was instead on the road to becoming one of a record 3 million foreclosure filings we logged last year.
As documented in my Nation investigation, reprinted on The Root, the same mortgage industry that made these toxic loans has frustrated every effort to halt the resulting foreclosure onslaught. Last week, banking lobbyists gutted the president’s foreclosure relief plan—the fourth major initiative in two years—by stripping out a reform that would allow bankruptcy judges to modify home loans. The point wasn’t to shuttle borrowers into bankruptcy, but rather to give them leverage for prying a better deal out of banks.
Industry lobbyists had worked mightily since February to kill the bill. Day after day, senators horse traded with lobbyists, fruitlessly trying to win the industry’s approval for this smart policy. As one of my editors asked incredulously, when did the banking sector become the fourth branch of government? And why should we seek the input of the same people who created the problem in the first place?
From the start of this crisis, industry lobbyists and their political backers have deflected scrutiny—and outrage—by urging us all to, instead, judge people like the Gallons. They did so when, on the front end, they fended off smart regulation of their risky businesses. And they’re doing so now, as they cripple the White House’s effort to get their bad loans rewritten into something sustainable.
I asked George how he felt about the fact that, to many, his bad choices—not those of the banks—got us into this mess. He responded with a question of his own. “Why is it that the people who have worked hard for this country, have contributed something, always come out to be the bad guy?”
He’s angry, he acknowledges. But he, too, assigns a good bit of blame to himself. “If I hadn’t been so gullible as to believe in government,” he says, “to believe that there’s somebody there to look after the little man, there’s somebody there to prevent this kind of thing from happening, I wouldn’t be in it.”
Research support for this article was provided by the Investigative Fund at The Nation Institute.
Kai Wright is a senior writer for The Root.