The subprime mortgage crisis in the United States has rattled financial markets around the world. The crisis has triggered home foreclosures across the country, causing thousands of Americans to lose their homes, devastating entire communities. In this, the first part of a three part series, Jeff Swicord looks at the human cost of the subprime crisis in Cleveland Ohio, one of the hardest hit areas in the country.
"I have things that are going to my friends..." says Karen Lucas, who has owned a house near Cleveland, Ohio for 35 years. The Cuyahoga County Sheriff's Office was coming the next day to serve her with foreclosure papers and force her to move.
"We had to refinance because of my husband's company being purchased by another company. So, we refinanced, and he did lose his job from that company,” she recalls.
Like almost 70,000 other families in the Cleveland area over last five years, Lucas and her husband were not able to keep up with the ballooning payments of their subprime mortgage.
Going through her house she points out improvement projects she had planned, such as a kitchen renovation.
Lucas had been fighting a four-year legal battle to keep her house. She filed a final appeal with the court in an effort to hold-off foreclosure for another 30 days. With hours to go, there was no word from the court.
"I've done my crying," she said. "I've made my peace, and I put it in God's hands."
Cleveland, Ohio was one of America's great industrial cities of the 20th century, a heavy manufacturing town nestled along the banks of Lake Erie. Ohio has lost more than 200,000 manufacturing jobs in the last 10 years, and the median income in the state has declined by 10 percent.
In the late '90s, subprime mortgage lenders set up shop in the Cleveland area. Many people refinanced their mortgages to take advantage of historically low interest rates, and their problems began.
"Sometimes the house [mortgage] would be flipped [resold] to another company, and we didn't even know," says community activist Barbara Anderson. "We would still be sending the payment to the old company, and then we would get a call that would say, 'Hey you didn't pay us.' And we would say, 'Who are you?' 'Well, we are your new [mortgage company]."
Subprime loans are higher interest rate loans that lenders offer to buyers who do not qualify for lower, prime rate loans. The loans are often sold multiple times among banks, making it difficult for borrowers to keep track of who owns their loan. Anderson's loan agreement contained clauses that allowed her loan servicer to add on additional fees. "'Future late fees', I don't know what that is but that was tacked on there," she explains. "And then other fees, those were never outlined, that was tacked on there."
Her initial seven percent loan was now close to 20 percent.
With the help of a community organization that works to get people out of bad loans, the Andersons refinanced their loan at a fixed rate of 5.75 percent with a bank that does not sell its loans. Barbara Anderson is one of the lucky ones. Cuyahoga County expects more than 20,000 foreclosures in the next year.
On the day the sheriff was scheduled to serve foreclosure papers, Karen Lucas had no word from the court about her appeal. As she sat down to talk with VOA, there was a knock at the door.
The visitor was an officer who was serving Lucas with the foreclosure papers. She was ordered to vacate the premises immediately. She went inside to work out the details of her move. Later, she came out to talk to VOA one last time, holding the judge's decision on her failed appeal.
"This is not justice!" she said. "They are protecting their own, and I am tired of it, tired of it!" Holding the envelope, she said, “You should read this.”
It is a scene that will be duplicated thousands of times in cities across the U.S. over the next several years as the effect of the subprime loan crisis ripples across the country. Families uprooted, lives altered, memories left behind.