HuffPo Goes Underwater for Mortgage Story

Tip of the hat to a housing crisis report

A deep Friday tip of the hat to HuffPo’s Ryan Grim, Arthur Delaney, and Lucia Graves for their lengthy piece, “Learning To Walk: Fear, Shame, And Your Underwater Mortgage,” published yesterday.

It’s a smart and mostly dispassionate examination of the reasons mortgage holders who find themselves underwater choose to walk away from their homes—or, alternatively, to stay and continue to pay. The reporters examine the costs of either decision—both financially and emotionally.

The core of the story is a smart bit of reaching out to readers and some smart subsequent follow-up. In January 2010, HuffPo asked readers thinking about walking away, and those who already had, to e-mail the website and share their stories. Grim, Delaney, and Graves followed up with the fifty-eight people they initially found who had fit the criteria for the new piece one year later (ten were unreachable—a number of those who were reached requested anonymity). They write, “A year later, only eight of them are still paying their mortgage.”

Essentially, we’re given a litany of small stories about homeowners from Chicago to Oahu, filled out with some fine reporting on the costs and benefits of walking away. And there’s some sharp criticism for a press that has shamed mortgage-holders who’ve considered leaving. Particularly interesting are the general attitudes the reporters discover among their numerous citizen sources. Like this:

The hostility people felt from their banks made the decision to walk away easier for many, and some now even revel in it, celebrating a break from a system they see as rigged against them. “We get daily calls from creditors and banks that threaten this and that, and I just laugh knowing I am helping to bring down the system that has brought us all down and continues to reap giant profits at the expense of the little guy,” said one. Others are still haunted with shame by the decision. Most said they felt a mix of both.

And there’s a bit of activism on HuffPo’s part, too:

Following Burton’s suggestion, HuffPost contacted and set up the infrastructure for underwater homeowners to do just that. This coming Tuesday, homeowners across the country can use Meetup’s tool to organize small gatherings of homeowners who have walked away or who have considered doing it. Often, the best advice comes from a neighbor.

The piece’s best sections are the small human stories the reporters find, here told mostly in their own words with blunt honesty and humor. Here’s a slice from forty-seven year-old mechanic Ernie Soto, who walked away from his house and bought an RV last year.

Technically, Soto still owns his home and he routinely finds gigantic bills in his mail. At this point, he says, he can only chuckle darkly at the letters. The bank doesn’t seem to understand that he has walked away, that he’s done with them. Had he realized it would take his bank so long to foreclose, he said, he could have stayed in his house for free, but he was afraid that his bank would move faster than the guy who repossessed his truck. And didn’t want to put his family through the trauma of an eviction.

“I was in unfamiliar territory. I don’t lose houses every so often,” he said. “I was thinking it’d be like the car, they’d come throw me out in three months.”

The reporters state their goal at the beginning of the piece.

The purpose of HuffPost’s investigation was not to determine who or what was to blame for the predicament that the homeowners found themselves in or whether they are deserving of sympathy—twin concerns that dominate the foreclosure discussion and will no doubt continue with ferocity in the comment section below this story.

Our question was more direct: What are the costs and benefits of walking away from an underwater mortgage—not for the banks or the neighborhood or for society as a whole, but for the real people making the decision?

Their answers are definitely worth a Friday afternoon read.

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Joel Meares is a former CJR assistant editor. Tags: , ,