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Persuading Banks To Give Homeowners A Break

Sara Millan (left) thanks Neighborhood Assistance Corporation of America CEO Bruce Marks after NACA was able to reduce her family's mortgage during an event in Los Angeles in September 2010.
Damian Dovarganes
Sara Millan (left) thanks Neighborhood Assistance Corporation of America CEO Bruce Marks after NACA was able to reduce her family's mortgage during an event in Los Angeles in September 2010.

Over the past four years, Bruce Marks has been on a traveling road show to help people avoid foreclosure. His nonprofit, the Neighborhood Assistance Corporation of America, has held more than 80 events in cities around the country. So far, Marks says, NACAhas helped 202,000 people get their payments lowered so they can afford to keep their homes.

"The banks now reach out to their borrowers, to their customers, to come to the NACA Save the Dream events so they're doing that because it makes business sense for them," Marks says.

He says he has figured out how to get this broken system to work better. In each city, he rents out a big convention center. All the big banks — Wells Fargo, Bank of America, JPMorgan Chase — send teams of people, sometimes several hundred bank employees altogether. They can approve loan modifications on the spot for homeowners who show up and qualify.

'It's Not Easy'

"It's not easy, you know; it's very, very hard because you work and you know you're trying to make ends meet and trying to get a place for your kids," says Rebecca Asare, an immigrant from Ghana who attended a recent NACA tour event in Worcester, Mass.

In 2009, Asare was working as a technician at a medical device company. But she says the work got outsourced to China. "So there was a layoff and a lot of us had to go home," she says. "So [it became a struggle] with my mortgage because I'm a single mom here; my husband is in Africa."

Asare has since managed to go back to school and get a job as a nursing assistant. She has a decent income and wants to find a way to keep her house.

But Marks says that banks too often foreclose, even in cases where it clearly makes sense to keep people in their home and paying their mortgage at a lower interest rate. Sometimes it's for seemingly crazy reasons — like they're missing a tax document that they already faxed in three times.

"This is the most dysfunctional industry in the world," Marks says.

Building His Own System

The banks disagree, but they admit that their systems were not prepared to handle the scale of the foreclosure crisis.

Four years ago, Marks decided that if the banks' computer systems and call centers were all tangled up and not built to handle the problem, he would build his own system.

"We learned what didn't work," he says. "We kept failing at various things, so then what we learned is we had to go outside of the banks. We had to set up our own systems outside of the way that they do business. In essence we had to do the work for them, and that's what we do."

NACA counselors help homeowners scan all their documents — tax forms, identification, bank statements — into a computer system that the nonprofit developed. If they're missing any papers, they can go home and get them. And NACA organizes all this into an online package for the banks.

When Marks first told the nation's biggest banks he wanted them to patch into his computer system, he says, "they said, 'Never — we don't do that because this is Bank of America, this is Chase, this is Wells [Fargo]. We have our own systems.' "

Putting Pressure On Bank CEOs

But Marks does a pretty good angry bulldog imitation. And when the banks would say no to things like this, he'd round up hundreds of homeowners to protest at the banks' headquarters — even at some CEOs' houses and country clubs.

At one point, in 2009, Marks was targeting JPMorgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon, whose house is on the edge of a lake. "We were going to bring hundreds of people on rafts, going over water to do a beach landing on his property," Marks says.

That protest never actually happened. After Marks started buying up landing rafts for this flotilla, Chase got wind of this. And Marks says the bank agreed to take part in his Save the Dream tours. Marks says Chase has since been a good partner. The bank had no comment.

But while the banks seem to be playing ball with Marks now, sometimes his aggressive style creates conflicts with people you might think would be his friends. During his road shows he has had some turf battles with local housing nonprofits. But the show goes on.

When a homeowner gets approved for help in the Bank of America area, bank employees actually wave plastic clapper noisemakers and ring a gong.

A Positive Answer, Then Relief And Joy

Homeowner Asare sat with mortgage specialist Deanzala Johnson, who told her she qualified to keep her house with a modified and affordable mortgage payment. Asare was overjoyed and called her 12-year-old daughter to share the news that they could stay in their home.

"My daughter says, 'Mommy, can you fix my room back again for me because you pack all the stuff,' " Asare says.

Asare had been so worried about getting foreclosed on that for months her kids had been living out of suitcases, which had been packed in case they had to move.

But now Asare has a clean slate and can keep her house. If she stays current, Bank of America will pay NACA for negotiating a successful outcome, and that helps fund these events.

Of course, not every homeowner has enough income to qualify. "We can't make everyone happy," Johnson says. "That's just basically it. ... We try our best to do what we can as far as we can go."

But for those who do get a loan modification, Marks estimates that more than 90 percent of homeowners keep making their payments after a year.

This week, the group starts two more Save the Dream events — one on Long Island, N.Y., and the other in St. Louis.

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NPR correspondent Chris Arnold is based in Boston. His reports are heard regularly on NPR's award-winning newsmagazines Morning Edition, All Things Considered, and Weekend Edition. He joined NPR in 1996 and was based in San Francisco before moving to Boston in 2001.