Sitting in the rocket docket, James Kowalski considers himself lucky to have won his first motion of the morning. To get the usually intractable Judge Soud to forestall a foreclosure is considered a real victory, and I later hear Kowalski getting props and attaboys from other foreclosure lawyers. In a great deal of these cases, in fact, the homeowners would have a pretty good chance of beating the rap, at least temporarily, if only they had lawyers fighting for them in court. But most of them don't. In fact, more than 90 percent of the cases that go through Florida foreclosure courts are unopposed. Either homeowners don't know they can fight their foreclosures, or they simply can't afford an attorney. These unopposed cases are the ones the banks know they'll win — which is why they don't sweat it if they take the occasional whipping.
That's why all these colorful descriptions of cases where foreclosure lawyers like Kowalski score in court are really just that — a little color. The meat of the foreclosure crisis is the unopposed cases; that's where the banks make their money. They almost always win those cases, no matter what's in the files.
This becomes evident after Kowalski leaves the room.
"Who's next?" Judge Soud says. He turns to Mark Kessler, the counsel for the big foreclosure mills. "Mark, you still got some?"
"I've got about three more, Judge," says Kessler.
Kessler then drops three greenish-brown files in front of Judge Soud, who spends no more than a minute or two glancing through each one. Then he closes the files and puts an end to the process by putting his official stamp on each foreclosure with an authoritative finality:
Each one of those kerchunks means another family on the street. There are no faces involved here, just beat-the-clock legal machinery. Watching Judge Soud plow through each foreclosure reminds me of the scene in Fargo where the villain played by Swedish character actor Peter Stormare pushes his victim's leg through a wood chipper with that trademark bored look on his face. Mechanized misery and brainless bureaucracy on the one hand, cash for the banks on the other.
What's sad is that most Americans who have an opinion about the foreclosure crisis don't give a shit about all the fraud involved. They don't care that these mortgages wouldn't have been available in the first place if the banks hadn't found a way to sell oregano as weed to pension funds and insurance companies. They don't care that the Countrywides of the world pushed borrowers who qualified for safer fixed-income loans into far more dangerous adjustable-rate loans, because their brokers got bigger commissions for doing so. They don't care that in the rush to produce loans, people were sold houses that turned out to have flood damage or worse, and they certainly don't care that people were sold houses with inflated appraisals, which left them almost immediately underwater once housing prices started falling.
The way the banks tell it, it doesn't matter if they defrauded homeowners and investors and taxpayers alike to get these loans. All that matters is that a bunch of deadbeats aren't paying their fucking bills. "If you didn't pay your mortgage, you shouldn't be in your house — period," is how Walter Todd, portfolio manager at Greenwood Capital Associates, puts it. "People are getting upset about something that's just procedural."
Jamie Dimon, the CEO of JP Morgan, is even more succinct in dismissing the struggling homeowners that he and the other megabanks scammed before tossing out into the street. "We're not evicting people who deserve to stay in their house," Dimon says.
There are two things wrong with this argument. (Well, more than two, actually, but let's just stick to the two big ones.)
The first reason is: It simply isn't true. Many people who are being foreclosed on have actually paid their bills and followed all the instructions laid down by their banks. In some cases, a homeowner contacts the bank to say that he's having trouble paying his bill, and the bank offers him loan modification. But the bank tells him that in order to qualify for modification, he must first be delinquent on his mortgage. "They actually tell people to stop paying their bills for three months," says Parker.
The authorization gets recorded in what's known as the bank's "contact database," which records every phone call or other communication with a homeowner. But no mention of it is entered into the bank's "number history," which records only the payment record. When the number history notes that the homeowner has missed three payments in a row, it has no way of knowing that the homeowner was given permission to stop making payments. "One computer generates a default letter," says Kowalski. "Another computer contacts the credit bureaus." At no time is there a human being looking at the entire picture.
Which means that homeowners can be foreclosed on for all sorts of faulty reasons: misplaced checks, address errors, you name it. This inability of one limb of the foreclosure beast to know what the other limb is doing is responsible for many of the horrific stories befalling homeowners across the country. Patti Parker, a local attorney in Jacksonville, tells of a woman whose home was seized by Deutsche Bank two days before Christmas. Months later, Deutsche came back and admitted that they had made a mistake: They had repossessed the wrong property. In another case that made headlines in Orlando, an agent for JP Morgan mistakenly broke into a woman's house that wasn't even in foreclosure and tried to change the locks. Terrified, the woman locked herself in her bathroom and called 911. But in a profound expression of the state's reflexive willingness to side with the bad guys, the police made no arrest in the case. Breaking and entering is not a crime, apparently, when it's authorized by a bank.
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