This summer, Abrego's story got much worse. When I visit on a Saturday in July, she is on the couch, crying. She's depressed, she says. Clutching a California Lottery ticket, she tells me that First Advantage sold her loan to Ocwen, a mortgage lender in West Palm Beach, Florida. (Currently Ocwen faces one class-action lawsuit in federal court, based on 57 cases, and 331 individual lawsuits in Florida: all allege fraud.) Because Abrego has not made her mortgage payment for three months, Ocwen sent her a Notice of Default: her house would be sold at public auction, July 25, on the steps of the county courthouse. Abrego owes $44,746 on the loan. For $2600, Ocwen will stop the sale, what's called a "foreclosure rescue." But even that sum is nearly impossible for her to raise. In an 11th-hour move, Acorn is trying to secure a Federal Housing Administration emergency loan for Abrego; a promissory note would pay what she owes to date and reinstate her loan with Ocwen.
According to Bryan Piccolomini, a broker and the personnel director with First Advantage Financial, Balistrieri left First Advantage in February 2006, a few months after Piccolomini started. The California Department of Real Estate lists Balistrieri as having no disciplinary action; there was a "conditional license suspension" for "unfiled education requirements" between September 2005 and January 2006; these requirements were met and the suspension was removed. Why did he leave? "I can't tell you," Piccolomini says, "but he went somewhere else. He was an independent contractor." Piccolomini does admit that complaints surfaced from clients with whom Balistrieri worked. But, Piccolomini says, "He wasn't here long enough for me to see a pattern of complaint." He doesn't know anything about the Abrego case: "Maybe Tony didn't fund the loan through us." (I have tried to track down Balistrieri through his current employer, Home Capital Lending, but neither he nor the company has returned my calls. I have referred Abrego's case to the city attorney's office, which is investigating.)
"I don't know if Tony fits this profile," Piccolomini continues, "but there are people in our industry who make money during a refinance craze. Much like day traders, a lot of people went in and out" of mortgage brokering in the mid-2000s. "I know there were a lot of people buying advertising time on the radio and sending out mailers that had boiler-room operations that no longer exist and had workers who were not very well trained."
At the courthouse, July 25, 169 foreclosures are offered for sale. The majority are either postponed or canceled: deals have been struck between lender and borrower, in some cases, that morning. Abrego's property is on the block, put up by Alliance Default Services. The auctioneer announces the address, details the standard restrictions -- "sale of this property is on an as-is basis" -- and states that he has an "authorized bid" of $1000. "Are there any qualifying bidders?" he asks. Two men raise their hands. "Again, I have an opening bid of $1000. Are there any other bids?" One bidder says, "$351,000." The other does not counter. Going once, twice -- sold. This price is nearly $100,000 less than Abrego paid for the house in 2002. She and her husband are now out of the house, renting an apartment.
First-time home buyers like Mario and Joaquina Abrego typically get one shot at owning a home. If they make payments faithfully, they will build equity, on which so much is possible in America. But if they fall behind -- whether the fault is theirs or the tactics of predatory brokers, or both -- they may never get another shot.
Jim Bliesner is the director of the San Diego City-County Reinvestment Task Force. The 15-member committee, whose cochairs are city councilmember Tony Young and county supervisor Ron Roberts, meets monthly at city hall to monitor local banking practices and develop strategies for reinvestment in low-income neighborhoods. This year the task force has heard the sobering testimony of housing advocates and real estate analysts as well as the heartbreaking stories of people facing foreclosure. Often those who testify are in tears, often they can't finish, always they stretch beyond the allotted five minutes. In June, one woman, her voice quavering with anxiety, says, "I don't want to sound like I'm on the pity pot, but I can't pay my $4000 mortgage." The astute Bliesner has come up with a metaphor for the foreclosure process: "It's a lot like a glue sheet. Every time you put one hand down, you get stuck. Then you put another hand down to try to push away. But every time you try to push away, you get stuck even more."
The stickiness is as bad as it was in the mid-1990s, during the last slowdown in the local housing market. DataQuick Information Systems has found that for the first half of 2006, the number of foreclosures was 445; for the first half of 2007, it was 2896. That's a 551 percent increase.
What's happened in San Diego is this: during 2005, when home prices were setting records every month (the high was reached in November 2005), it seemed that anyone buying, selling, or financing a home could make money. Brokers made commissions selling loans, realtors earned fees buying and selling houses. Wall Street made money offering "mortgage-backed securities," or bundled loans, as investments. Developers made money supplying new homes, whether in South Bay or Temecula, to people who'd drive two hours to work. Even people buying homes were making money by "flipping," or selling quickly as the price went up. With a rising housing market, with a shortage of new homes, with more buyers qualifying, any investment yielded results. No matter the size of your mortgage, if you got in over your head, you could -- you were told -- refinance. At a lower rate! It's a classic predatory tactic: the broker pushes a homeowner to refinance a loan, which may or may not lower the payment. By taking advantage of the home's increased equity, the broker can collect a commission. For a few golden years in the mid-2000s, all this easy money was true.
Thomas Larson is the author of The Memoir and the Memoirist: Reading and Writing Personal Narrative.