Two Cords of Wood: An Intimate Look at Unnecessary Foreclosure

Nov 22, 2010Thomas A. Cox

home-foreclosure-documentRobo-signers. Moratoriums. Botched documents. In the midst of a complicated and crooked mess, New Deal 2.0 asked leading thinkers and activists to help navigate the maze of the foreclosure crisis. Our “Foreclosure 411” series focuses on the values inherent in explaining why we should care and what the crisis means to all of us. In the fifth part, volunteer lawyer Thomas Cox recounts some tough advice he had to give a client facing foreclosure.

Back in September, I was asked to give some unusual advice to a client. This woman, a resident of rural Northwestern Maine, wanted to know if she should buy the two cords of wood that she needed to heat her $48,000 home for the winter. I had previously told her that my bag of legal tricks was empty, and that I could not stop KeyBank from completing a foreclosure of its $28,000 second mortgage on her home. She was having trouble accepting the fact that it would really evict her, since she owed $50,000 on her first mortgage to a local bank, a loan on which she was current in her payments, which meant that KeyBank could recover nothing by foreclosing on its second mortgage. She told me again how, even though she had lost her job in the local paper mill, she had found other, but much lower, employment income and that she was able and willing to make reduced payments on the second mortgage. But KeyBank refused to accept reduced payments.

I had to tell my client that she should not buy the firewood, as I knew that it was planning an eviction within days. I had managed to penetrate the executive offices in Cleveland, Ohio, telling the "Executive Client Relations" person in the "Office of the President" how foolish it was to evict this woman, who had reduced income but a real willingness to devote as much of that as she could to continued second mortgage payments. The letter that I received in response told me how much KeyBank "valued" this woman as a client, how it "is committed to providing her with excellent service," and how it regrets "any inconvenience or frustration your client may have experienced." The letter closed by telling me, "[W]e appreciate the opportunity to respond to your concerns with quality and integrity." That letter also told me that it was not willing to do anything at all to restructure this woman's loan or to stop the eviction process.

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After spending over $4,000 on foreclosure costs and legal fees, it purchased my client's interest in the property at its foreclosure sale (there were no other bidders for this worthless second interest) and it did evict this woman from her home at the beginning of October. She is now living in the basement of her daughter's house. Since the interest in this home that it purchased was still subject to the outstanding first mortgage, it then paid $50,000 to the first mortgage holder so that it could own full title to the property as it made plans to re-sell it. Thus, at this point it had over $54,000 invested in gaining full title to this property. Last week, KeyBank listed this property for sale for $44,000. It will surely net no more than $40,000, if it can sell it at all. This will leave the bank with a real cash loss of over $14,000, a woman living in her daughter's basement who was willing to pay at least some level on her second mortgage, her community with an empty and devalued property in its midst, and a very sour taste for all of us who try to help these people.

Looking only at this loan and the personal situation of its borrower, KeyBank's actions make no sense at all. However, along with all of the other major lenders and loan servicers in this foreclosure crisis, it does not look at these loans from a personal perspective. Everything is driven by "the numbers." Those numbers tell financial institutions like KeyBank that it makes economic sense to avoid the costs of evaluating these loans on an individual basis. The numbers tell them not spend the money to pay employees to make individual decisions on whether a situation such as the one described here makes sense or whether ways can be found to work with the homeowner. KeyBank and the other large financial institutions and loan servicers do not care if they needlessly ruin the lives of some of their customers, as long as they can minimize the expense of dealing with their individual situations. The only "quality and integrity" that these institutions care about is the quality and integrity of their bottom lines.

I used to represent KeyBank back in my bank lawyer days. It grew out of purchases of two venerable old-line Maine banks with roots going back into the mid-1800s. Even as late as the 1990s, when I was representing KeyBank of Maine, it was still a "local bank." There were bank officers assigned to dealing with loans such as this one who would make real human decisions on appropriate courses of action. Since these banks have gone national, they no longer care about how they hurt their individual customers, and they no longer care about the communities where those customers live. They are entirely willing to sacrifice a certain (and substantial) percentage of those customers on the altar of corporate profits. They can get away with this because they can lend money more cheaply then our local banks can -- Federal monetary policies allow them to borrow money at a cheaper rate. Is this what we want from our Federal government?

Sadly, my advice to my client was correct. It was good that she did not waste her limited resources on the two cords of wood, as she no longer has a house to heat for the winter.

Thomas Cox is a retired bank lawyer in Portland, Maine who serves as the Volunteer Program Coordinator for the Maine Attorney's Saving Homes (MASH) program. He represents homeowners in foreclosure and assists and consults with other volunteer lawyers in providing pro bono legal services to these Maine homeowners.

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