Mario is a recent immigrant from Mexico, and he's typical of homeowners facing foreclosure. He doesn't want me to use his surname; he's ashamed of getting behind on his payments. He thinks he's been irresponsible, and he wishes he had saved more money before buying. "If you don't have the skill or the knowledge to make money to pay for a house," he says, "it's better to wait." The problem is, Mario had neither the skill nor the knowledge three years ago when New Century Financial qualified him and his wife to finance a $410,000 home in Oak Park, with $17,000 down.
Suddenly, he and his wife were arguing, pointing fingers. Today, they have separated and may file for divorce. "There's too many problems right now," he says. "I think I'm going to lose the house." One strategy for Mario is to try to rent the three-bedroom, one-bath home for enough to cover the monthly payment. He hopes that if he gets a tenant, Mario may be able to live in a room in the back of the house. So far he has no takers. He may also try to sell the property. But that hasn't happened either. He has neither money nor motivation to fix the place up. Getting behind on his mortgage payments has made him listless.
Where will he go if the bank forecloses? "I don't know. Maybe the mission."
Mario makes $3000 a month as a handyman, doing plumbing and electrical. He pays $400 a month on a 2003 car, so mortgage and car payment were eating up his income. Even with a job, his lack of equity and lousy credit mean that he can't get anyone -- he's buttonholed every broker and banker he can find -- to refinance his loan. Once he believed, per the loan broker's instructions, that when his loan went "up a little" he could refinance. But such an option for someone who has, as the euphemism goes, "less than perfect" credit is unlikely. Mario knows now that he was put in a subprime loan, and he feels angry, cheated, and helpless.
And that's as far as Mario wants to go. Talking by phone, he retreats into one-word answers. His voice is disappearing; he wants off the hook. Most people like Mario who are losing their homes marshal terse responses, blame their brokers, and testify bitterly to what the San Diego housing community is undergoing this year -- an epidemic of foreclosures. Foreclosure is the tragic end of predatory lending, lax regulations, and fraud on the part of some brokers and lenders, as well as ignorance, self-delusion, and misplaced trust on the part of many buyers. When borrowers in trouble see how blind they've been and how badly they've been taken, it's no wonder they don't want to talk.
A few brave souls, however, are speaking up. One is Joaquina Abrego, who wants everyone to know her name and her story. In June, Abrego, 60, spoke to reporters at a media event staged by the local chapter of Acorn, a national advocacy group that represents low- and moderate-income families on issues of housing, employment, and social justice. Acorn's loan counselors intervene between the borrower and the lender when the borrower is behind on payments. Before reporters and cameras, Abrego is wearing a fire-engine red coat with an Acorn button; sign-waving supporters are behind her. She stands in front of her home of five years on D Avenue in National City. She stares into the Fox 6 News lens, her expression frozen and intense, until the cameraman asks her to relax.
Abrego, who's lived in National City all her life, and her husband bought their two-story wooden house five years ago. It's an unusual, Christmassy-looking home, painted dark red and dark green. They got it after "many years, sacrificing, working two and three jobs." In 2002, the home cost $445,000 and was financed with no down payment. In 2005, once her payments had gotten onerous, a friend told her to contact Tony Balistrieri, a loan broker with First Advantage Financial, who could help her refinance her loan. "He told me he is going to lower my payments and everything is going to be fine. It was so beautiful. I believe him; I trust him. I went to sign the papers, but I thought something was wrong." Abrego recalls Balistrieri rushing her, saying that if she didn't act, she would miss a very low rate.
Balistrieri promised Abrego he'd reduce her $2045-a-month payment. "He call me up, and he say, 'How much do you want to pay? Nine hundred [a month]?' And I say, 'Nine hundred would be fine.' " At First Advantage's office in Mission Valley, she read the loan documents (no one explained them to her), then panicked, seeing that the loan would rise in increments to $3700 a month. She called Balistrieri from the office.
On the phone, Abrego recalls, "He say, 'Just sign the papers. Don't tell anybody. Sign the papers.' " Their agreement was " 'just between you and me.' 'Are you positive?' 'I'm positive, 100 percent.' He was a loan officer, so maybe he could do it." In short, Abrego trusted Balistrieri, and that was the last time she spoke with him.
"I signed and came home and gave the papers to my husband. He read them and ended up having a heart attack and [later] a stroke. He was in the hospital, and he said, 'What are we going to do now? Our payments are going up. We'll lose our house, everything. We'll be in the streets.' He was in the hospital for three weeks and lost his mind. He's not able to think for himself or do anything. Sometimes he doesn't remember things. My life changed from bad to worse."
One year later, Balistrieri sent Abrego a bill for $3700 for his services, which she's never paid. She believes this was pure intimidation: he'd already received his commission as part of the refinance. Even though Abrego owns two restaurants -- Mama's Grill in Old Town and El Cajon -- she doesn't make enough to keep up with her mortgage.
Thomas Larson is the author of The Memoir and the Memoirist: Reading and Writing Personal Narrative.