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Home Is Where the Fraud Is

David Dayen | The New Press | June 21, 2016 | 7,150 words

At the height of the housing crisis, one woman’s bureaucratic odyssey to discover who really owns her home leads her to startling revelations about the housing market.

Posted inBooks, Featured, Nonfiction, Story

Home Is Where the Fraud Is

At the height of the housing crisis, one woman’s bureaucratic odyssey to discover who really owns her home leads her to startling revelations about the housing market.
Banksy. Crayon House Foreclosure, East Los Angeles. Via Occupy.com

David Dayen | Chain of Title: How Three Ordinary Americans Uncovered Wall Street’s Great Foreclosure Fraud | The New Press | May 2016 | 26 minutes (7,150 words)

Below is an excerpt from Chain of Title, by David Dayen, the true story of how a group of ordinary Americans took on the nation’s banks at the height of the housing crisis, calling into question fraudulent foreclosure practices. This story is recommended by Longreads contributing editor Dana Snitzky

* * *

How could you not know who I am if you’re suing me?

Lisa Epstein drove down Highway A1A, along the Intracoastal Waterway, back to her old apartment in Palm Beach. At her side was her daughter Jenna, in a car seat; atop the dashboard was an envelope containing the monthly payment on her unsold co-op. Though her house was in foreclosure, Lisa always paid the mortgage on the apartment, her fallback in case of eviction.

Lisa gazed at the water out the window. She never wanted to miss mortgage payments; Chase told her to do it and promised assistance afterward, but then put her into foreclosure. The delinquency triggered late fees, penalties, and notifications to national credit bureaus. A damaged credit score affected a mortgage company’s decision to grant loan relief, which hinged on the ability to pay. Even if Lisa managed to finally sell the apartment, even if she could satisfy the debt on the house, the injury from this “advice” would stick with her for years. Chase Home Finance never mentioned the additional consequences, emphasizing only the possibility of aid. The advice was at best faulty, at worst a deliberate effort to seize the home. Lisa spent a lifetime living within her means, guarding against financial catastrophe. Now Chase Home Finance obliterated this carefully constructed reputation. She felt tricked.

America has a name for people who miss their mortgage payments: deadbeats. Responsible taxpayers who repay their debts shouldn’t have to “subsidize the losers’ mortgages,” CNBC host Rick Santelli shouted from the floor of the Chicago Board of Trade on February 19, 2009, two days after Lisa got her foreclosure papers. “This is America! How many of you people want to pay for your neighbor’s mortgage, that has an extra bathroom and can’t pay their bills, raise your hand!” The floor traders in Chicago, between buying and selling commodity futures, hooted. This rant would later be credited as the founding moment of the Tea Party. And it signified a certain posture toward delinquent homeowners, a cultural bias that equated missing the mortgage payment with failing the duties of citizenship. The indignation didn’t account for mortgage companies driving customers into default. However, lenders welcomed anything that humiliated deadbeats into blaming themselves. In most cases it worked: in the twenty-three states that required judicial sign-off for foreclosures, around 95 percent of the cases went uncontested.

But Lisa had an inquisitive mind. Before she would acquiesce, she wanted to understand the circumstances that led to this lawsuit from U.S. Bank, an entity she had never encountered before seeing it listed as the plaintiff. She had three questions: who was this bank, why did it have a relationship with her, and why was it trying to take her house?

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