Aug 092010
 

Before they fell into a costly cycle of subprime refinancing, Harold and Patricia King could afford to live in their modest two-bedroom home in south-central Los Angeles. They had paid $17,500 for it in 1968 with the help of a low-interest G.I loan.They raised two children and two grandchildren there. Harold retired in 1994 after 30 years on General Motors’ assembly line. His wife retired a few years later from her clerical job with the school district. They had a monthly fixed income of $2,900 and a fixed monthly mortgage payment of less than $1,000. They could handle it.

Unlike some who were able to take advantage of the cash they squeezed from the value of their homes, the Kings have little more than financial devastation to show for it. They refinanced 10 times — eight times between 2000 and 2006 — through various financial institutions. They wound up with more than a half million dollars in debt and payments more than their monthly income. Earlier this year they joined the more than 1 million other homeowners across the country that face foreclosure.

While we’ve seen and heard lots of stories of families suffering through losing homes they could never actually afford, the King’s saga puts into sharp focus one of the overlooked aspects of the on-going foreclosure crisis –many homeowners who had traditional– and affordable – mortgage loans were sold into subprime hell via refinancing deals.

In its 2006 study, “Losing Ground,” the Center for Responsible Lending found that between 1998 and 2006, “the majority of subprime loans have been refinances rather than purchase mortgages to buy homes,” and that homeowners who repeatedly refinance face a higher likelihood of facing foreclosure.

In February, the Kings packed their belongings in boxes, preparing for the loss of their long-time home. But they decided to fight for the home they’ve lived in for more than 40 years.  With the help of their lawyer, they’ve been able to stave off foreclosure, at least through the rest of the year. They’ve gone on the offense, suing their most recent lenders earlier this year for fraud and elder abuse.

Tracking the complex cast of characters and institutions with key roles on the business side of the Kings’ plight also offers a stark reminder that the explosive growth in subprime created vast wealth that never trickled down to hard-hit communities like south-central Los Angeles, a once-vibrant largely African-American and Latino neighborhood increasingly blighted by the lasting marks of the severe recession – high unemployment and high rates of foreclosure.

Take for example Deutsch Bank, which bought the MortgageIT firm that provided one of their Kings’ refinancings. In 2009, the banking giant increased its compensation to its executive board nine-fold over the previous year, led by the bank’s president, who was paid $13 million. Deutsch Bank’s path through the rocky financial crisis was helped along by its share of more than $50 billion it got in funds from the taxpayer bailout–funds the federal government paid to insurance giant AIG, which were then passed on to AIG’s clients – what has been labeled the “back-door bailout.”

The Kings also crossed paths with a lesser-known firm called Green Tree, which at one time was hired to act as the servicer on their loan – collecting the Kings’ mortgage payments every month. Founded by Lawrence Coss, a former car salesman, the firm had made a fortune in the 1990s by loaning money to people to buy mobile homes. Around the time Harold King was retiring from GM, Coss was drawing attention as the country’s highest-paid executive, winning a $69 million bonus ­– the largest bonus of all time when it was awarded in 1996. The following year he did even better, with a $102 million bonus. However, the fat profits that got Coss the bonus later turned out to be a mirage, built from bundles of risky loans and shaky accounting. Coss had to give some of his bonus back but managed to hang onto his ranches and philanthropic foundation. If anybody had been paying attention back in 2001, the unraveling of Green Tree’s business could have provided an early warning signal of the problems to come.

But in places like south-central Los Angeles, the country’s financial institutions were on a lending spree.  The Kings originally borrowed some money against their equity to supplement their retirement income. But then a series of lenders decided that the retired couple on a fixed income were good candidates for much larger refinancing.  What they offered the Kings were adjustable-interest rate loans with low teaser rates and exorbitant closing costs, fees and prepayment penalties. The Kings readily acknowledge now that they are financially unsophisticated and didn’t understand what they were getting themselves into. The deeper they went into debt the worse they felt.

“I felt guilty; I didn’t want to discuss it,” Patricia King says now. “I knew that something was deeply wrong. You hope for the best. But nothing good ever happened.”

Eventually lenders told the Kings that they needed to find somebody with better credit if they wanted to refinance their home. They brought in their 35-year-old grandson Antonio, who at the time worked at the Coca-Cola bottling plant.

According to the Kings’ lawsuit, Antonio King informed lenders that his monthly income was $3,700 a month, but when the broker or lender prepared the application, it showed his monthly income as $10,200 a month. The application, submitted on Antonio King’s behalf, also exaggerated the value of the home, from $154,000 to $540,000.  The Kings’ lawyer, Philip Koebel said of their grandson: “He threw himself to the credit wolves.”

Koebel said Antionio King found an ad for what sounded like an attractive new loan with a monthly payment of about $1,000 a month.

The Kings didn’t understand that they were getting into a negative amortization loan. The Kings were told that they would save $1,000.00 per month in comparison to a conventional mortgage if they made the minimum payment. They were not told that the minimum payment didn’t even cover the interest. They were not told that the difference would be added to the principal of their mortgage and that they would be charged additional interest on the ever increasing balance of their mortgage.

With the money they got, the Kings paid off the previous loan. But they couldn’t keep up with the new payments. Antonio tried to work out a loan modification but Green Tree, which was servicing the loan,  “was not interested in making the loan affordable to the Kings,” according to their lawsuit.  Eventually Antonio filed bankruptcy in an effort to save his grandparents’ house. His 80-year old grandfather mows lawns in the neighborhood to bring in a couple of hundred dollars a month.

The lenders have fought to have the Kings lawsuit thrown out, so far unsuccessfully. In court papers their defense lawyers characterize the lawsuit as nothing more than “vague allegations and broad generalizations.” The Kings, they say, were “reaping the rewards of the strong housing market at the time and taking cash-out payment after cash-out payment each time they refinanced the loans.”

The Kings “were clearly very familiar with the loan refinancing process,” the lenders’ lawyers contend.

Like many others, the Kings didn’t see that the world had fundamentally changed, Koebel said. “Once a mortgage loan had been a relatively simple matter; a talk with a banker and a fixed payment for life. They’re not supposed to put your home at risk.”

About Martin Berg

Martin Berg, WheresOurMoney.org editor, is a veteran journalist.

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