When Audit honcho Dean Starkman asked me if I would write a story about losing my family’s home when I was fifteen, I readily agreed, not realizing at the time how difficult it would be. Sorry, dear reader, I was stuffed with barbecue and beer, on a train heading downtown from Harlem when I said “Sure, why not?”
But trying to write it was a lesson in and of itself. I was surprised how painful it was to dig back into that stuff, which began nearly two decades ago and ended when we moved out in 1993. I told my wife after I’d turned it in that writing it was worth $10,000 of therapy.
Writing is always a somewhat painful experience, but throw in the remembering and reassembling of personal history I’d done my best to cover up at the time (I was already uncool enough in high school without being the poor kid, too!), not to mention having my mom relive the ordeal so I could get my facts straight, and the process felt a bit like performing dental surgery on myself with a pair of pliers.
Okay, so that’s hyperbole, but the difficulty I had writing the story was a reminder of why we thought it was one worth sharing. The reaction to it—both positive and negative—has proved conclusively in my mind it was.
I heard from lots of journalists, some of whom I know and many of whom I’ve never spoken to, from across the country and the world. But I wanted to respond to the folks who took the time to comment on the piece online.
Certainly, it’s a sensitive issue however you think about it, as you can see by reading through the comments (a special shout out to “Mary” for calling me an “elitist, just like your Republican parents.” The fam got a big kick out of that one in our hotel room at Disney World). Lots of people view the epidemic of foreclosures happening now as a necessary corrective to poor choices made by homebuyers. I have a lot of sympathy with that view, believe it or not. We know speculation was rampant (though probably no more than 20 percent of purchases at the peak) during the bubble—that’s what bubbles are.
And, as Carl Stevens wrote, there’s certainly a case to be made that even non-flippers ought to take their lumps:
I have sympathy for (bad) luck, but less so for bad choices …. Especially when I am being asked to fork out money for it.
But I think Keith Robers puts it well in his comment:
To my way of thinking there are three kinds of people who took out loans they couldn’t afford. 1. Those that thought it was the only way they could get a home. I give them a free pass. 2. Those that were trying to keep up with the Jones. They get my scorn and derision. 3. Those that were trying to make a buck, the flippers. I hope only bad things happen to them.
Ultimately, despite my conflicted thoughts about personal responsibility, I’ve come to put most of the blame on the banks and mortgage brokers (pushed by a ravenous Wall Street securitization machine), rather than the regular folks who got in over their heads, even if those regular folks suspected they might be reaching too far.
It comes down to this: there’s a massive information disparity between the two sides at the mortgage table. The banks and brokers knew damn well that the people they were putting in these houses couldn’t pay them off if the market turned (and whether or not they thought the market would utterly collapse as it has, these financial types know a market always turns). But they didn’t care because they knew they could unload their dirty deeds on some sucker running a pension or hedge fund via the magic of the mortgage-backed securities and collateralized-debt obligation markets.
Ma and Pa Smith, sitting across the desk from Broker Bob, may have worried about whether they’d be able to pay the adjustable-rate mortgage when it reset in four years, but who doesn’t—even if they can afford it. All thirty-year commitments are to some extent a leap of faith, and you’re some kind of sucker if you believe the Smiths weren’t being cajoled and smooth-talked past their worries by the brokers.