But the story’s strength is in its elongated kicker. Powell (a teacher of mine while at Columbia) has a knack for finding human faces to near perfectly encapsulate the nation’s broader economic calamities. This time, he and Martin find Staten Island couple Eric and Annette Padilla. Their move through the mortgage rescue system highlights its necessity and its failings.

Eric and Annette Padilla bought their home in 2003. Then Mr. Padilla fell ill and Ms. Padilla quit her job to care for him, and the couple fell behind on their mortgage in 2009. (Their income dropped to less than $60,000, from $96,000.)

They applied for the program through their bank, HSBC, and received a three-month modification. They made the payments on time. In August 2009, they requested a permanent modification.

The Padillas called the bank every week. One representative said their file was incomplete, another asked for more documents, a third said the documents were there all along.

In September, the bank said their documents had “become stale” and told them to resubmit. Eventually, they were given a new temporary modification. Once again they made every payment on time. In January 2010, they sought another permanent modification. Then they heard back from HSBC: denied. The reason? The couple had overpaid one month.

Last summer, HSBC filed papers to foreclose against the Padillas. For Mr. Padilla, 41, the house was his step out of the housing projects; he has no intention of surrendering.

“I ask myself sometimes, why is this happening?” he says. “Wasn’t this program set up for hard-working people like us?”
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Joel Meares is a former CJR assistant editor.