WASHINGTON -- In cities and towns across the country on Tuesday evening, underwater homeowners gathered at bars, restaurants and coffee shops to help each other answer a question that banks would rather they not ask: Should I walk away from my mortgage?
The meetups grew out of HuffPost's feature on the housing crisis, done in conjunction with a series on "The Dylan Ratigan Show" on MSNBC. The Service Employees International Union helped get the word out, blasting an email to 100,000 activists.
Nearly one in four U.S. mortgages are now worth more than the home itself, with forecasting predicting further declines in home values in 2011. For a story published last week, The Huffington Post interviewed 48 homeowners wrestling with the decision to walk away from their mortgages or the consequences of that decision. HuffPost followed the homeowners over the course of a year; by the time the story was published, only eight were still in their homes.
One homeowner, Richmond Burton, suggested that there should be "support groups" for people going through similar experiences with their bank as they attempt to win a modification, get approval for a short sale, struggle to make the mortgage, fight the bank in court or simply walk away.
That suggestion was made a reality Tuesday night in meetups stretching from Seattle, Wash., to Boynton Beach, Fla. Many of those who attended the gatherings, organized through Meetup.com, said afterward that they want to get together with other homeowners again. So HuffPost has scheduled the next meetup for the second Tuesday in March, and each subsequent meeting will also be held on the second Tuesday of the month. Individual groups, however, are free to modify those plans. If you're interested in organizing a meetup and need help doing it, email us at email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com. If you're a real estate professional or attorney with experience in short sales and foreclosures who can help with the meetups, contact us or find your local chapter.
The meetings across the nation ranged in attendance. A meetup in the Ballard neighborhood of Seattle drew eight people to Tully's Coffee. "There was a renter who just wanted to hear about what was going on and left feeling good about his situation," Joel Davis told HuffPost in an email. "There was a couple, struggling to make ends meet who were looking for advice and moral support about taking the plunge into the inevitable. There was a man going through a divorce trying to figure out how to move on. There was a man who had successfully negotiated a modification, but was still not in great shape. There was a woman who is suing her bank and encouraging all comers to take on the system. There was a woman trying to keep her late father's home from being stolen by squatters and his his bank. And there was me."
Davis, who said he's expecting twins later this year, is reluctantly trying to find a "smooth path" to walking away, and he thanked HuffPost for inspiring the meetup. "We all gained a bit of knowledge and we will continue to share our advice and experiences with each other," Davis said. "You just may see us picketing a foreclosure auction sometime soon."
Angie Johnson, who also attended the Seattle meetup, said that as a Quaker, she believes protests and possible arrests are "totally ok," and offered to study up on filming events as well as the finer points of peaceable protests. "We're talking about picketing at foreclosure auctions," Johnson told HuffPost in an email. "We all left feeling empowered, and far, far, less polarized."
Homeowners in Portland, Ore., met at Hopworks Urban Brewery to discuss their mortgage woes. Marge Bare described a group of intelligent, engaged people sharing stories and words of advice. "Everyone's story is different," Bare said of the event. "We each told our story and what we hope to be able to do in the future. Or we said, 'I don't know what I'm going to do!'"
Local news station KGW Channel 8 covered the gathering as part of their package on the foreclosure crisis. Home values in the Portland metro area fell 12 percent year over year, KGW reports, and a third of homeowners in the area owe more on their mortgages than their homes appraise for. Watch the segment featuring HuffPost's meetup in the City of Roses:
"We didn't decide when to meet again, but everyone wants to," Bare said. "Several of the people came from Washington [County] and may want to meet over there next time. I think what's most important that we took away, is that we're not alone and maybe together, we can get through this overwhelming situation somehow."
In New York City, homeowners and HuffPost staffers gathered at a Starbucks in Soho. Conversation flowed easily and focused on both the technical aspects of walking away from a mortgage, and the emotional ramifications of the process. Richmond Burton, who walked away from his mortgage after he couldn't sell his home, spoke eloquently about both. "In addition to the shame, there was also an uncertainty of how to proceed," he said. "At a certain point, I just wanted to be free of it." (Last week, Burton, the aforementioned inspiration for HuffPost's national meetups, appeared on Dylan Ratigan's MSNBC show with HuffPost's Ryan Grim to discuss the pros and cons of walking away.)
Though turnout was not always robust, those who attended had compelling stories to share. At the meetup HuffPost attended at a Starbucks in Silver Spring, Md., only one reader showed up: a woman in her late 40s who had moved to D.C. less than a year ago and wished to remain anonymous. She told HuffPost she was forced to leave her condo in Oakland, Calif., after losing the job she thought she would have forever. She wanted to stay, she told HuffPost, but was unable to find employment in the area.
The woman said she spent 15 months looking for work in the San Francisco Bay area, burning through her savings, before she finally found a government contracting job in the nation's capital. She's still paying off the mortgage on her Oakland condo, on which she owes about $100,000 more than it's worth, even as she pays rent on her basement apartment near U Street in D.C. Still, she told HuffPost, she's afraid to walk away, because her current employer considered her credit score before hiring her and she fears other employers will do the same. But it's not just financial considerations that vex her: she says she loves California and wants to return, but she's interested in international development and the best career opportunities are in D.C. All the uncertainty would be fine, she said, if she were 20 years younger and having these issues, but not now.
Firedoglake's David Dayen went to HuffPost's underwater mortgage meetup in Los Angeles. He reported that while media outnumbered homeowners five to one, the one guy who did show up had an incredible story to share. "While I've heard a lot of these HAMP horror stories in the past year, I've never heard anything like this," wrote Dayen. The man was Jeremy Fletcher, a swimming pool builder from Northridge, Calif., whose personal business tanked just as the housing market collapsed. Read Dayen's account, "Portrait of HAMP Failure: The Mother of All HAMP Nightmares."
Bill Young of Philadelphia hosted a meetup at a local Starbucks, but he said he scheduled the meeting at the last minute and ultimately was the only one there. Lisa Epstein of ForeclosureHamlet.org said the showing in Boynton Beach, Fla., was similarly disappointing.
"We had a dual event, our usual monthly Happy Hour for Combatants of Illegal Foreclosures combined with the HuffPost meetup," she told HuffPost in an email. "Only one person from the meetup showed up and another called to say hello. About ten people from our group showed up ... We need to continue to educate and encourage people to attend the next one!"
Donna of Port St. Lucie, Fla., said she brought a friend to the scheduled meetup only to find that the host was a no-show. "Disappointed," she told HuffPost in an email.
A handful of people attended a meetup in Palo Alto, Calif., meetup attendee Kristen Emery reports. "The common goal of each attendee seemed to be a dissatisfaction with the status quo and a desire to take action to make a difference in the current state of affairs," she said. "Especially looking forward to the 2012 presidential election."
Emery said the country needs a Democratic alternative to the conservative Tea Party grassroots, while another meetup attendee said the nation needs to focus on what action to take going forward. A third attendee talked about his struggle with Chase Bank, the servicer of his mortgage loan, and floated the idea of protesting in front of some local Chase branches.