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Foreclosure Crisis Erases Hard-Won Wealth, Dreams Even In Center Of Black Affluence

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BOWIE, Md. -- In the spring of 2007, a few months after Osita Otigba and his wife, Peace, moved to Balk Hill, a new subdivision then being busily developed in this picturesque Washington, D.C., suburb, they organized their cul-de-sac's first-ever block party.

A Nigerian immigrant who runs an executive car service, Otigba learned over burgers and potato salad that his new neighbors, all of them black, included a White House staffer, a Grammy-winning producer, a lawyer, a nurse, an engineer and a fellow business owner. That's an impressive lineup in most any community, but here in Prince George's County, the most affluent majority-black county in the United States, the Otigbas and their neighbors were just part of the wave of well-to-do families who arrived in the years before the financial collapse to stake their claim on a 5,000-square-foot version of the American dream.

Outside the cul-de-sac's seven brandy-colored brick neocolonials, party conversation quickly turned to typical middle-class concerns, from the quality of area schools to guidelines for the local homeowners association. By the time the Otigbas cleaned up and helped the hired DJ pack his equipment, several of their new neighbors had made something else clear. Most planned to spend the coming decades living in Balk Hill.

"I found that refreshing," said Otigba, 43. "When we moved here, I told my wife, 'This is it. I'm never moving again.' We were planting our roots."

That was then. Today, the Otigbas and five of their six immediate neighbors are underwater on their mortgages, that is, they owe more than their homes are worth. The lawyer's house sits vacant after a failed short sale. The engineer fears the house he shares with his family will become unaffordable when their mortgage resets in about a year. And having attempted once unsuccessfully to cut a new deal with their bank, the Otigbas are waiting to hear the results of a second effort. For months they've lived in fear that an official foreclosure notice will arrive with an order to vacate.

"I am like a tree that is on the verge of being uprooted by water," Otigba said, then sighed. "When that happens, think of all the other parts of the ecosystem that are upset, the streambeds that overflow, the problems that follow. That's what it is like here."

Thousands of blocks throughout the country have felt a similar pain since the housing crash, but communities occupied primarily by black and Latino families have been disproportionately battered. That the nation's housing crisis threatens the futures even of those with the means of the Otigbas and their neighbors in this center of black affluence raises serious questions not just about government remedies for the foreclosure crisis, but about equality of economic opportunity in the United States.

"Committing to equality in mortgage lending is not as easy a concept as saying you are a great admirer of Martin Luther King or support the ideas in 'I Have a Dream,'" said Beryl Satter, a Rutgers University-Newark historian and the author of "Family Properties: Race, Real Estate, and the Exploitation of Black Urban America."

Many politicians, including Republican presidential contender Mitt Romney, have blamed the mortgage crisis largely on bank regulations that didn't apply to its most infamous players. That's a deflection, Satter said, that fails to account for the country's entrenched legacy of discrimination.

"Institutional racism and the way businesses have taken advantage of it to make money are absolutely at the root of this crisis," she said.

Efforts to expand the number of black and Latino homeowners have also been described as the root cause of the housing collapse. Such a conclusion is too simplistic, said Debbie Gruenstein Bocian, a senior researcher at the Center for Responsible Lending, a Washington-based think tank.

White families held mortgages on the vast majority of the roughly 4.2 million homes that have entered foreclosure since the housing bubble popped in 2006, she said. Yet since the crisis began black and Latino families have been almost three times as likely as whites to lose their homes, according to a November study by the center.

That's largely because even minority homebuyers with good credit were often steered into high-interest loans, adjustable-rate mortgages and other risky arrangements. In December, Bank of America agreed to pay $335 million in victim compensation to black and Latino borrowers pushed into unfair deals by its notorious subsidiary, Countrywide Financial. Given judicial approval, the settlement will mark the U.S. Justice Department's largest-ever residential fair-lending penalty for "widespread" discriminatory steering.

At the height of this shady lending, 2004 to 2008, the greater Washington area ranked among Countrywide's top 10 targets, according to the Justice Department. The Otigbas and most of their neighbors borrowed from Countrywide.

These types of loans have reshaped life in Prince George’s County. As early as 2007, a state task force identified Prince George's County as the epicenter of Maryland's foreclosure crisis. County sheriff's department data indicates that mortgages for more than 50,000 homes, roughly one in four single-family residences here, have been in default or some stage of the foreclosure process since 2006. Property values have cratered in that time, according to county officials, declining by 35 to 40 percent on average. They are expected to fall further this year.

"One of the reasons everyone should be more than a little alarmed here is that for middle-class families, whether they be black or white, housing is the primary form of wealth," said Lawrence Mishel, an economist and president of Economic Policy Institute, a liberal Washington think tank. "When the wealth from a house is gone, everything a family has is in real jeopardy."

Foreclosures have expanded the wealth gap between white and black households in the United States to levels unseen since the early 1980s, according to an EPI report published last September. In mid-2009, the recession's official end, U.S. median household wealth -- total assets minus debts -- sat at $97,900 among white families, compared to $2,200 for black families, the report found.

"It's like somebody opened a drain on most of the economic progress made by black families in the last 30 years," said Mishel. "That's three decades down the drain."

Since 2007, the Otigbas have poured more than $215,000 into their house, which is now worth only 60 percent of what they originally paid for it. But if the family has to leave, Osita Otigba said, it's not the money they'll mourn.

"It's the idea of the dream," he said. "If you have worked, you have planned and prepared to make it real, you never, ever envision that it will not last."

A HOME FOR 'STRIVERS'

The collapse of the mortgage bubble erased decades of wealth gains for black families, but most were already at a disadvantage compared to whites. In 1934, the Roosevelt administration created the Federal Housing Administration, opening access to affordable long-term mortgages to many Americans. But with appraisal criteria based partly on area race and religion demographics, the FHA refused to guarantee mortgages in most non-white communities. Some 30 years later, the Johnson administration outlawed many of these discriminatory housing practices, but after decades of codified white advantage and black exclusion, the damage was done.

"These policies and practices are the primary reason for the wealth gap, the homeownership gap and all manner of serious social issues with us today," said Satter, the Rutgers historian.

There were bright spots during the recent boom years, however, perhaps none brighter than Prince George's County. It was often described as a kind of promised land for its 860,000 residents, 65 percent of whom are black, according to census data. Median household income hovers around $70,000, some $20,000 higher than the national figure. And even amid the recent economic turmoil, neither unemployment nor poverty rates have risen above 8 percent here.

"There are unexceptional people and dirty laundry that we try to hide in Prince George's County, just like everywhere else in America," said Erek Barron, an African-American Prince George's county native and former federal prosecutor who runs his own law firm. "But when you live here or you know this place, you certainly get the sense that this is where the strivers make their home."

Kevin Toston and Aruna Koroma can vouch for that. Toston, 36 and African American, and Koroma, 34 and the child of Nigerian immigrants, are real estate agents whose parents were among the last generation of black professionals who moved here in the early 1990s, when the county was still home primarily to working-class whites.

For a recent interview with HuffPost, the two men chose a wine bar in the National Harbor, a vast complex of hotels, condominiums, restaurants and retailers set on a Potomac River marina not far from downtown Washington. Sailboats and middle-aged black Harley Davidson hobbyists could be seen from the bar's patio, adjacent to a Segway store and a home-furnishing chain that only sells items in various shades of white.

This kind of atmosphere hasn't disappeared from the area since the downturn, but those residents who stretched their finances thin in better times don't shop there much now, the real estate agents said. During the boom, they said, the county's spiking property values and a wave of solicitations for home equity loans, teaser-rate mortgages spurred demand for newer, larger houses.

"I think people were thinking, 'Why not upgrade?'" said Koroma. "And of course, most people were thinking, 'When I get that new job or I meet that someone special, my income is going to climb, so this shouldn't be a problem.' I think the attraction was so powerful, the risk just didn't seem real."

By 2003, Toston said, mortgage brokers in Prince George's County had begun engaging in "creative financing" -- packaging multiple loans, for example. He met Koroma in 2005 at the Remax #1 office in Bowie, where they made what Toston would only call "very, very good livings" dealing in roomy family homes and waterfront McMansions. From 2004 through 2006, their office topped the company's worldwide sales charts.

To close a deal, Koroma said, he often helped would-be home buyers write letters to convince sellers that their house would be in good hands or fulfill a young couple's dreams. Toston said season tickets to Redskins games were on the table between buyer and seller in some cases. Many of these buyers also started their house hunts with the stories of parents, grandparents and friends who had tried but in decades past been unable to borrow or buy in their neighborhood of choice.

"People say buying a house is three-fourths emotion and psychology," Koroma said. "Finding a way around 'no,' persevering beyond 'you can't,' is part of the black experience. You could see that here real clearly during the boom."

Meanwhile, according to housing counselors, homeowners and attorneys who work with people facing foreclosure, townhome communities and older neighborhoods saw a deluge of postcards and fliers from banks and mortgage lenders, who also blitzed hip-hop and gospel radio stations with advertisements. Salesmen set up tables outside supermarkets and in church lobbies, at community fairs and outside football games. Suddenly everyone seemed to know a former bagboy or cellphone-slinger making a killing in real estate.

"They weren't trying to create black homeowners because they cared," said Satter, the Rutgers historian. "They hunted customers every way they could because they saw an opportunity to make a lot of money as soon as one of these mortgages was signed."

Today, Remax's Bowie #1 office is closed. Toston and Koroma now co-own Metro Realty Partners, a smaller firm where they renovate and sell more moderately priced homes.

While they played their part in stimulating the cycle of buying and selling during the boom, the two men said the omnipresence of easy money and complex mortgage instruments left them as unprepared as many of their customers when interest rate resets began in earnest, the bubble burst and lending contracted.

"No one saw the cannonball they were pointing at us all," Toston said.

'I THOUGHT WE WERE ON OUR WAY'

Like many of the Prince George's residents facing foreclosure, Otigba bought a bigger home at the market's peak, then found himself hard-pressed to make payments even as the house lost nearly half its value.

It's been a devastating reversal for Otigba, whose life long read like the consummate American success story. Arriving in 1992 from Nigeria with an engineering degree and $500 in his pocket, Otigba worked at a D.C.-area McDonald's, then delivered pizzas and the Washington Post to finance more education.

With the fortitude Otigba says he built during his years as a goalie on Nigeria's national soccer team, he began driving a cab 15 hours per day. Those hours took their toll, pushing school out of the picture. Somehow, Otigba found the time to meet Peace Otigba. The couple married in 1995. In the end, Otigba’s grueling schedule proved an incentive.

"It was like a modern kind of slavery," he said of his taxi years. "I had to put myself in a better situation. So I finally just decided to trade in my Pathfinder and buy the first towncar to start my company."

Otigba founded Safe Way Executive Transportation in 1996. In the ensuing decade, he expanded the company, sans loans, to include four drivers and a fleet of four cars.

Meanwhile, his family was also growing. In 1998, he put a down payment on a townhouse in Prince George's County, and in 1999 Peace gave birth to their daughter, Iffy, joined a year later by another daughter, Dallas.

"I thought we were on our way," he said.

As his family and business grew, Otigba joined the thousands of Prince George's residents looking for a bigger house. A priority, he said, was a home where his neighbors would include black people working in a broad range of industries with whom his children could identify and emulate.

"It's important that they know what is possible," he said. "It's the kind of thing that many white parents are fortunate not to have to really think about."

In exchange for a better price on their new house in Bowie and extras like a sun room, Otigba said, he agreed to use a series of vendors selected by the developer, including Countrywide.

The neighborhood's developer, Regan Brother's Homes, a division of real estate developer NVR Inc., did not respond to multiple requests for comment about its arrangement with Countrywide.

In early discussions, Otigba said, Countrywide told him and his wife they would qualify for a roughly 6.5 percent interest rate that would fully cover the house's $697,407 purchase price. At closing, however, their deal included a 6.5 percent rate on a 30-year interest-only loan -- a higher-cost, riskier investment, since it does not pay down mortgage principal -- as well as a 15-year loan at a whopping 9.75 percent interest.

That gave Otigba pause. He had a credit score of 730, generally considered good to excellent, and was a low risk. He was also familiar with studies showing that black borrowers are often pushed into higher-cost loans. Still, he took the deal.

Hardly unique, that decision was neither illogical nor irresponsible, said Darrick Hamilton, an economist at the New School who studies socioeconomic stratification, particularly racial wealth gaps. Beyond purchasing power, race shapes a great many consumer experiences, he said, from pricier interest rate offers to closer scrutiny from retail store security, even to being steered to a certain floor of a hotel. By the time most black Americans sit down to sign a mortgage, Hamilton said, that experience of disparate treatment comes with them.

"I felt a bit like a man going into battle, facing a larger and better-equipped army," Otigba said. "I knew that if I went somewhere else, I would still be a black man in search of a loan. So I focused on whether we could afford the loan in front of us."

PRIVATE PAIN, SHARED

Given his income and his company's steady growth, Otigba judged that he could afford the high-interest loan package. But by the end of 2007, as the housing market's slide began to accelerate, many of his fellow Prince George's residents found they could not afford to keep making their payments, and the county's first major wave of foreclosures began.

That first wave of worried homeowners to flood county nonprofits and foreclosure-assistance lawyers included a number of people who had either lied about their finances, lied to by mortgage brokers or been talked into unsustainable, risky deals, said Kimberly Henderson, the director of housing and community development at the Greater Washington chapter of the Urban League, an economic advocacy group for people of color. By 2009, however, most of that wave was gone, Henderson said. The majority lost their homes in a foreclosure. A smaller number elected to walk away in order to forgo the steep refinancing penalties, ballooning payments and interest-rate hikes that, when the economic forecast was rosier, they were assured they would never have to face.

Since then, Henderson said, she has seen mostly well-to-do homeowners struggling to cover spiking adjustable-rate mortgage resets and fixed payments as their incomes take hits or just fail to keep pace.

"We had doctors and lawyers, people with six-figure salaries and at least some degree of financial sophistication in our office trying to figure out how to save their homes," she said.

A special Maryland task force reported that Prince George's County was by far the worst hit by foreclosures within the state. Legislators have implemented new mediation requirements and funded community assistance programs to help residents fight home seizures. The county's foreclosure rates have since slowed, but there remains a "shadow inventory" of homes in default or a state of limbo, several area housing counselors said.

Since the recession began, the schools the Otigbas and their neighbors worried about at their block party have seen their funding slashed nearly 10 percent. Teacher salaries have been cut and about 1,300 teachers fired. Meanwhile, the demand for homeless student services has risen by about 15 percent, county officials said. County pawn shop owners and food pantry directors say demand for their services has sharply increased. On Otigba’s block, as on the next one over, a college-age student decided to attend community college instead of a four-year university because family finances have taken a hit. And one man whose family said he was fighting foreclosure died of a heart attack at 48.

Yet personal crises often aren't immediately visible in the county's image-conscious interior, where many homeowners' associations don't allow for-sale signs, let alone foreclosure signs. And many residents don't want to admit they are in trouble. That makes it tougher, state and federal officials say, to reach people at risk of foreclosure -- Maryland's aid program has helped only about 26,000 residents try to save their homes, according to a progress report released this month -- or to expose the new raft of mostly questionable businesses whose placards have replaced advertisements for planned communities and mortgage loans.

Community Crisis Services, a local nonprofit, operates a 24-hour call center that, among other things helps people connect with needed social services, including access to the county's homeless shelters. Executive Director Tim Jansen says their operators frequently hear from callers who are emotionally distressed. Some are contemplating suicide.

"Working this stuff out, it isn't easy," Jansen said. "Sometimes it's being real about people's situation and reminding them that taking a little time for self-care doesn't have to involve a trip to the spa or a two-week vacation. You can go in that big bathroom, turn on the shower and let it steam up the room."

Fiscal 2008 marked the first time CCS received more than 100,000 calls in the space of a year, but last year the center handled about 127,000 calls, Jansen said. This fiscal year, it's on track to manage more than 140,000.

STAYING HOME, FOR NOW

Osita Otigba hasn't called CCS, but there have been changes that the family does not relish. Peace Otigba is working full-time, including some nights and weekends. There is no more organic produce in the refrigerator, no Washington Post in the front yard.

Home repairs only happen if they are essential. The family’s annual Labor Day trip to nearby Ocean City was scuttled. And virtually every extra penny goes into a special emergency fund -- just in case the family is forced to rent an apartment.

These days, Otigba is back to handling Safe Way Limo's Sunday and graveyard shift airport runs. He had to lay off one of his drivers late last year.

In the wake of the financial meltdown, some of Otigba’s corporate clients had to cut back. Suddenly, the Otigbas had a much tougher time covering $4,000 a month in mortgage and insurance payments, especially with his wife pregnant and in the final stretch of her nursing school program.

Last February, Otigba fought his way through the phone calls and paperwork needed to obtain a trial mortgage modification from Bank of America though the Obama administration's Home Affordable Mortgage Program. The deal cut the family's mortgage payment by $800 a month.

"Asking the bank for a break, it wasn't a decision that I made lightly," Otigba said. "It wasn't something that felt natural to me. But as a father, I absolutely had to try."

Peace Otigba, 37, gave birth to their couple's third child, son Dimma, in April. In August, she landed a nursing job with a salary around $70,000, nearly doubling the family's income. But soon after, following six months in which Otigba says they made their reduced payments on time, Bank of America denied the Otigbas a permanent modification, demanding they bring their mortgage current at its unmodified rate or face foreclosure.

That's a common story. While the Obama administration claimed in 2009 that HAMP would help 3 to 4 million homeowners stay in their homes, by November there were only 750,748 active permanent modifications, according to the Treasury Department’s most recent report on the program. Another 764,340 trial modifications were ultimately rejected.

For the Otigbas, the news came as a surprise. Bank of America had granted two of their neighbors permanent modifications.

A bank spokeswoman told The Huffington Post the family's household income was deemed insufficient to support a permanent modification and Otigba took too long to respond to requests for information.

Since then, Otigba and his wife have spent long nights in their expansive kitchen and his first-floor home office. There, within view of the lush fenced-in yard where Otigba hopes to one day kick soccer balls around with his son, they debate whether they should think of their current address as permanent.

There is a lot of anxiety, but Otigba tries not to let it seep down to the kids. For now, he can still afford piano lessons for Iffy, all arms and legs with milk chocolate skin, braces, glasses and a deep dimple in her left cheek, and Dallas, a bubbly walnut-colored girl with bangs trimmed to graze her eyebrows. And he's passing on his love of tennis, volley by volley, during Sunday afternoon trips to the park.

"I've had to be honest with my children," he said solemnly. "But they are so young. I think, I hope, that what they know is that Daddy will make sure we have a place to lay our heads."

Last month, after The Huffington Post contacted Bank of America to confirm details of his story, Otigba also got a call from the bank. The bank is willing to consider a new mortgage modification request, spokeswoman Jumana Bauwens said.

Within days, Otigba sent the bank a new set of forms, Safe Way's profit-and-loss statements, his wife's pay stubs and his remaining hope.

Osita and Peace Otigba are waiting for an answer.

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