Dangling Modifiers

When writing about foreclosures, don't forget their human context

As record numbers of foreclosures make headlines around the country, the Obama administration’s plan to help homeowners modify their mortgages and stay in their homes is off to a slow start, The New York Times reported this morning. Only 55,000 homeowners have taken advantage of the program, despite the administration’s promise that the plan would prevent roughly four million foreclosures. The Washington Post had its own piece on the Making Home Affordable initiative today as well, pointing out that the Treasury Department is still developing “a $10 billion insurance plan that will help shield lenders from losses associated with falling home prices.”

Complex and inconsistent rules are only part of the problem for homeowners who are at risk of foreclosure. The program asks lenders to either stabilize the monthly payments in cases where adjustable-rate mortgages made homes unaffordable, or to lower monthly payments by extending the terms of the loan. But a major criticism of the program is that lenders aren’t required to reduce the principal owed on the loan; so in cases where mortgages have been modified, the relief is only temporary, because some owners owe more than the value of their homes. Plus, some homeowners don’t even know they’re eligible for the program, or can’t navigate the bureaucracy, while public service agencies are understaffed in the face of growing demand.

Reading the Post and the Times, you get the sense that this is a pretty massive bureaucratic problem. But neither story helps readers understand the human side of the problem, or offers help for vulnerable homeowners. The Times ends its piece with a brief anecdote about a couple in Ohio fighting to keep their home, while the Post puts no personal spin on the problem. But personal stories don’t just make for more compelling reading. Their real purpose is to illustrate that these programs aren’t simply examples of governmental machinery that can succeed or fail without any real consequences. Caught in the cogs of these initiatives are individuals for whom the outcome is of the utmost importance.

As the Obama administration creates these massive social programs to help struggling Americans, it is essential that the press see the trees for the forest. Which isn’t to say that coverage should morph into immense collections of anecdotes, each with their own tale of woe. But it is essential that these government programs are set in a human context. The bigger picture of curbing foreclosures may be too complex for readers to understand. But by adding more personal stories of how the problem is affecting individuals, papers can help readers make some sense of it all.

One blueprint for how such stories could be told is Peter Boyer’s excellent New Yorker piece on foreclosure and eviction in Akron, Ohio, which spelled out how families found themselves facing foreclosure and how communities and individuals were dealing with the aftermath. Boyer’s piece was written before the legislation passed, but still serves as a powerful example of how to tell a story of this crisis.

Stories about the mortgage modification program can be great opportunities for local papers to provide a vital service to their communities, by humanizing the crisis and helping its casualties understand where to go for assistance. But the prescription, whether for national or regional papers, is to focus on the individuals for whom the foreclosure crisis is a personal tragedy. Both the Post and Times turned to advocates and experts, who despite their best intentions, made the problem too abstract. One economist quoted in the Times said the program won’t help people because some “have significant negative equity positions.” Jargon like this removes the urgency from these stories and demoralizes readers, which is precisely not the point. Informed readers should demand efficiency and accountability from the government, armed with the information they acquire. After all, both the government and the press are supposed to serve the same entity—the people.

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Katia Bachko is on staff at The New Yorker.