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.
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.
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.
But why have so many people in the US taken out sub-prime mortgages?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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”.
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.
PREDATORY LENDING PRACTICES
Ninja Loans: no income, no job, no assets
2/28: Mortgages that change from a fixed to a much higher adjustable rate after first two years
Prepayment penalties: High fees for trying to change terms of mortgage
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”. BBC