Saving homes through mass appeal

A foreclosure sign hangs in front of a home for sale.

TEXT OF INTERVIEW

Kai Ryssdal:
Almost everybody's been affected by the financial crisis.
In particular, those hit hard by the housing bubble.
In Pacoima, here in Southern California, the Mary Immaculate Parish is one such group.
Parishoners are mostly low income, mostly Spanish speaking.
And dozens of them are at risk of losing their homes.
Father John Lasseigne's been trying to help them by organizing them to negotiate with their banks.
I asked him when he first became aware of what was happening.

Fr. John Lasseigne: I was alerted to the problem, shortly after I arrived in the parish, about maybe five months ago. A family approached me asking for prayer at the end of a Mass and I said, prayer about what? And they said well, we're about to lose our house.

Ryssdal: Father, what's the parish doing to deal with this problem?

Lasseigne: We began actually announcing at the end of each Mass, "If you're faced with a mortgage problem, please approach a table that can be found outside the church after Mass and sign up." And, of course, those lists of names grew quickly. And we had meetings where 80 to 100 people would show up at a time.

Ryssdal: And so what you're doing is you're trying to have some sort of collective bargaining with the banks that hold the mortgages on these families homes, do I have that right?

Lasseigne: That is one of a two-part strategy. What we're doing is we've grouped mortgagers according to their lending institution. And then we are inviting the banks to send their representatives to meet with these cohorts, we're calling them, and to discover what kind of modifications they're willing to make.

Ryssdal: What kind of response are you getting from the banks?

Lasseigne: To date we've had one such meeting between a group of about 30 homeowners and one bank -- and it was Chase bank. And we discovered that as a rule the banks, at least Chase bank and its affiliates, they're more willing to work individually with homeowners. And we're concerned that if you take each case only separately, we're never going to resolve this crisis soon enough.

Ryssdal: I guess the other thing the banks are saying, Father, is that these people knowingly signed these mortgages and there's only so much we can do to help them out.

Lasseigne: Well, it's true that people need to take responsibility for the documents they sign. But I think it's also true that the lending institutions needed to understand that not everyone is of the same ability of course to understand rather sophisticated tools. Even bankers can't understand all the ins and outs of this crisis. How can they expect a borrower to understand a contract that's many pages long, unless they take the time to explain to them?

Ryssdal: How long are you going to keep going with these announcements after Mass, Father?

Lasseigne: We're now forming those groups to meet with the banks. That's the phase we're in right now. Come Jan. 25, we've scheduled a meeting with various elected officials. And we're going to be basically showing them how the banks' willingness either does or does not match up to the kinds of legislative remedies that have been proposed to date. We feel that the proposals coming from Washington have served more the interest of the banks than they have served the interest of the homeowners and the community at large. And we think that all three interests have to be taken into account when a remedy is structured.

Ryssdal: Father John Lasseigne at Mary Immaculate Parish in Pacoima, California. Father thanks a lot.

Lasseigne: Thank you.

About the author

Kai Ryssdal is the host and senior editor of Marketplace, public radio’s program on business and the economy.

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