Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Why Occupy Wall Street?

I grew up in a working class family that struggled to make ends meet on a monthly basis. Both parents worked full time but at mediocre jobs, doing what they could to raise a family on two high school diplomas. I started working and paying as much of my own way as possible at 16. I had to get a ride to work and home after stocking a salad bar on the dinner shift. From that job, I worked my way into bussing tables, running plates, and eventually waitressing while in college. I waited tables at two restaurants while also coaching kids soccer and attending full-time classes by 19. I continued working full time through college, paying off my tuition, which I always had to charge, each semester. In the hard times, I went to classes 5 days a week, worked closing at the restaurant on Thursday and Friday nights, and pulled an obscenely early morning bookkeeping shift followed by the busy waiting shift late on Saturday and Sunday nights. I went entire semesters without a single day off between work and school and found myself writing papers and studying for exams between 2 & 5 am. I completed 2 Bachelors Degrees on my own dime, but it took 6 years.

When I entered graduate school, I moved into a full-time ‘real’ job for the State of California. It offered me a stable income and reliable hours. I took the bus to school after work, carrying a change of clothes, my books, dinner, and a can of pepper spray for the 10-block walk home from the downtown drop off. I was one of the only people in the Masters program with a full-time day job, plugging along, and only taking 2 classes a semester, both at night. On the weekends, I struggled to maintain the 500-1000-page per week reading assignments and 25 page papers due. I did little else but clung to the faith that someday, I wouldn’t be in school and I could allow life in a bit. While I was in school, I was offered several promotions within government work. I turned them all down, resisting the urge to make more money, become reliant on a big salary, and therefore unable to afford my dream job of teaching at the college level. I worked out of my duty class a lot, doing the jobs of higher-paid employees, but refused to settle into a more posh life. When it was time to complete my thesis, I had to compile all of my research on Wednesday evenings and one Saturday a month—the only times when the archive was open during non-business hours. It took three years.

After ten years of higher education, I finally reached my academic finish line and received a Master’s Degree in History. Finally! With school coming to a close, I agreed to marry my boyfriend of 6 years. It was all coming together, we thought. He’d already established a modest, but solid career as a Probation Officer after working full time to pay his way through college as well. All of the hard work was sure to begin paying off as we headed towards our thirties. Two weeks after finishing grad school, I entered the classroom as a professor for the first time. It was one of the single biggest moments of my life. I’d returned to the very community college from which I’d graduated only 6 years prior. For the first two semesters, I played it safe and stayed on at the state job, always worried about money. I’d work all day, teach at night, and then return home to write the next day’s lectures until 3 am. I’d taken three classes, was teaching for the first time, and still working a normal day job. It was one of the toughest times in my life. And more exhilarating because finally my work was going towards a career.

Once married, my husband and I began looking at homes to buy. We’d rented for several years and watched the housing market balloon into horrific price points. Every time we looked at potential houses, I came home in tears. We saw houses that were completely filthy and in terrible neighborhoods and we couldn’t afford them. Houses were selling at an alarming rate. Builders were taking plots for one home and building three and people were buying them. There was the feeling that if you didn’t get something ANYTHING in this market, you never would own a home. Those disgusting houses we saw would be sold in a few days. There was a real sense of panic that after all the hard work we’d put in, we’d never have a real home. We initially held back and balked at high prices, waiting for the downturn. . . that didn’t come. In just a year, houses were $75,000 more expensive than the previous. We felt punished by our own caution and conservatism. It was fairly devastating to think that I’d worked so hard to break the cycle and get an education only to find that I couldn’t afford a home in the underprivileged neighborhood in which I was raised.  We remained patient and saved as much as possible and finally found a house. It was new and $30,000 less than the median home price was at the time. We didn’t want anything fancy. Just a home!  It was, in essence, a great deal.

We signed the papers on our home on our first wedding anniversary. Before the deal closed officially, we’d sneak into the house and sit on the floor in the empty rooms for hours. This is our home. It was twice the size of the tiny house we’d rented for years and nicer than anything either of us ever expected. The brand new neighborhood was filling up with other young couples eager to begin families. Grocery stores proudly hung their “Coming Soon” banners on the corner intersections. There were schools and parks in the growing plans. Even though we thought we might have to eat top ramen for the rest of our lives, we had a home. It was perfect.

In the next couple of years, I took the full leap into teaching, taking work at two schools to cover a modest, but middle income. I taught 9 different course topics in only 3 years and often worked into the wee hours preparing, preparing, preparing. All the while, I knew it was just creating a foundation for my career, even if it left little room for the married life I’d just begun. Every semester, I taught classes in the morning, the afternoon, and in the evenings. Oftentimes, I taught on Saturdays as well, just trying to make it. Whatever it took to build my reputation as a hard worker and to build a steady and reliable economic situation for our budding family is what I was willing to do.

You see, what I’m trying to say is that we followed the rules. Justin and I did everything you are supposed to do to have a decently comfortable life. We put in the hard work, broke the cycles of low income families, and took minimal risks. We focused on building a stable foundation and working hard to achieve your goals. We never expected or desired wealth. We didn’t want a house to make a profit, but to make a family. We had a modest lifestyle and expected to keep it for the long-term. We did not ask for handouts and laid the groundwork ourselves. We did everything right. 

After a couple years, the housing market finally began to deflate. As it turned out, mortgage banks had been selling average working people loans based on shady fine print and impossibly low interest rates. Often times, these loans were for a set amount for several years only to explode into a much bigger payment later or start with a low rate (to get the buyers sold) only to skyrocket in the future. Essentially, they loaned too much money to people who couldn’t totally afford the payments by making it appear as if they COULD, even if only for the short-term. Therefore leaving the buyers to figure it out on their own later at their own peril. This created a housing boom making homes very expensive as there were too many people desperate to get in on the rising costs (or not be left out as the case may be) . . . and these loans continued. The frantic lending included selling homes at 100% financing (the prices were so high that nobody could really afford a down payment), meaning that the house would have to rise in value in order for the owners not to end up in trouble. As the prices continued to rise, the lenders continued to qualify virtually anyone for a home loan . . . and so it all continued to grow. And grow. And grow. The problem? The growth was on inflated numbers because those loans were not going to last. They’d made it seem like everyone could afford to buy a home and that it was a sure moneymaker, flooding the market. It’s like building a house of cards . . . you can only go so high on so little before the tiniest gust knocks it down. And it all just . . . popped.

We’d been happily living in our home when the market crashed, making our payments diligently each month. And when the economy crashed (there was more to it than just the housing too, of course!), we saw it immediately in our neighborhood. The oversaturated housing market came to a halt. The community was only half finished, but the construction just stopped. There were entire streets with just the frames or lots exposed—and no homes. Plans for the schools, stores, and parks dissipated. And as the years went on, the first wave of neighbors, who’d bought loans that were to adjust in 5 years, began to leave. They couldn’t sell their houses because the house wasn’t worth what they owed on them and they suddenly couldn’t afford the payment. So they couldn’t afford a house that now had no value. Imagine the struggle! Do the ‘right’ thing by the bank and harm your family’s financial future . . . ? Struggling to make payments on a sinking ship. Neighbors disappeared in the middle of the night. They’d pack up and move before anyone could ask them why. Normal, educated, well-paid families were losing their homes in a humiliating way—and the rest of us schmucks continued paying mortgages for nothing because no value was in the home. These vacancies only made the remaining homes continue to lose value, leaving us all on the sinking ship. Further, as the houses emptied around us, crime rates skyrocketed. Our neighborhood began to fall prey to home invasion robberies and other crimes. As the banks sold off foreclosed homes at rock-bottom prices (further plummeting our home’s worth), the neighborhood took on a different atmosphere altogether. Suddenly, I found myself in a neighborhood much like the one in which I grew up, where you don’t feel safe walking in the streets or opening the door to strangers.

Except we’d worked so hard to avoid this.

When we realized that our house was worth $100,000 less (yes, one-hundred-thousand) than we paid for it, we called our lenders. We were current on our mortgage(s), in good standing, and not seeking to leave the home. We just wanted to stay but not sink. We asked the bank about modifying our mortgage to make it more affordable and realistic in terms of what the home was worth. Would they really want us to pay our whole lives on this house that would never again be worth the initial price? Of course they did. They refused to talk to us. We were told that if we missed a payment on the house, they could deal with us but that as long as we were in good standing, they couldn’t help us. Yes, as long as we paid our bills and did the responsible thing, we were screwed. If, however, you wanted to totally eff the bank by NOT paying your mortgage and walking away, then they’d negotiate. It made no sense and it was clear that the banks—who’d created this shit to begin with for their own profit—had no desire to keep average people from losing their homes. In fact, they were encouraging it. So why didn’t we? Because we had a conscience about it and we’d agreed to pay the mortgage. And the banks knew this. They knew that most people do not want to leave their homes in the middle of the night or struggle to find a place to live—that working Americans have a sense of value and obligation that worked in the banks’ favor. As we talked to neighbors all facing the same dilemmas, everyone had a similar story with the banks. Nobody could get through to the institutions that if the banks would just work with the owners, everyone would win. Surely the bank would fare better by keeping people paying their mortgages than abandoning their homes, no??

It made no sense except in spite. The banks were spitefully punishing people for signing on to terrible loans. They wanted us to struggle, even at their own profit loss.

As the story goes, the economic downturn affected much more than just the housing market. Business scaled back, local governments lost a fortune in property taxes and cut employees, and so on. Not only did we find ourselves fighting a losing battle over our home, but we both suffered losses at work. As a two civil-servant household, we were hit disproportionately. Justin was dropped a rank, watched his career path disappear, and took a tremendous pay cut. He also took cuts in his retirement and medical benefits. I lost one class at first and then took a salary cut as well. Then as other, more seniored (privileged) colleagues took their pay cut, they demanded more classes to make up for it, and I lost further work. And suddenly, it was we who were struggling to pay for a house that wasn’t worth it. And we continued paying. We cut all excess and buckled down to pinching pennies to pay that mortgage. We again called the bank. They again refused to work with us. As far as they were concerned, as long as we paid the mortgage then we were not deserving of negotiation. . . even if we were starving in the process, so we learned!

We put the house up for a short sale—selling it at the market value and taking a terrible hit in our credit and losing all of the money we’d put into the house. We never considered a foreclosure because we wanted to do the ‘right’ thing and take the hits. When we talked to the banks about short selling the house, we were told they wouldn't even consider an offer unless we stopped paying the mortgage. They wanted us to default. And we did. And we cried about it and lost months of sleep over it. And received the threatening, hateful, horrible phone calls from the very banks that took us down this path. We had to submit every financial document we had to the banks every month so they could determine that we were appropriately poor enough to sell their house. We got an offer on our house—for $200,000 less than we paid for it—and the banks took so long verifying us and requiring us to resubmit all of our paperwork over and over . . . that the buyers finally walked. They didn’t want to wait anymore. Despite that the banks do better when they can sell the house, they made it difficult and torturous just to punish us. . . when we’d offered to pay for the house at a much higher price than the one offered. When our realtor was on the phone cancelling the buyers’ offer, another department of the bank called at the same time to say that they’d accepted the offer. . . but it was too late! They waited all of that time just to accept?

It was a horrible rollercoaster experience for us. We didn’t close on the sale of our house for 12 months. It was emotionally draining, ego shattering, and eye-opening. . . It seemed that so many other hard working people were in the same boat as us. Why wasn’t anyone calling out the banks?! Unemployment is skyrocketing, millions of middle class Americans are homeless. School is impossibly expensive, yet teachers are making less. Public safety is out the window and civil servants are taking a clubbing. And the housing market was among the biggest catalysts to this whole mess? And who was behind the housing crisis? Who was gambling with Americans’ money and then leaving them out to dry when they had nowhere to go? And most infuriatingly, who threatened to halt the nation if they didn’t get a hand out from the government . . . after denying any amount of cooperation with the average citizen. . . ? They refused to take offers from homeowners for reasonable adjustments to value when the alternative was foreclosure and a total loss. They wouldn’t negotiate with those wanting to do the right thing. They punished those who continued paying on homes. And then they took a bail out and sent their executives on vacation with millions in bonuses. And the government shook hands with the bastards while ignoring the pleas of the people.

We, however, are living in a rental home (we moved shortly after listing our house, again not wanting to make money off unpaid mortgage, but just somewhere to live), rebuilding our credit, and still struggling. I’m facing complete unemployment next year as the cuts have only increased and probably headed back to government work as a copy maker to make ends meet. Changing careers in my mid-thirties and with two children and without a home to call our own was not the vision all of those years in school. I am not a lazy, druggie bum. I am not asking for a handout. I am not jealous of the rich. I do not want a life beyond my means. I’ve worked my whole life to avoid being here. I was supposed to have a better life than my parents. I want a better life for my children. I pay my bills. I went to college. I am ambitious. I work harder than most people I know. I want to live in a country where people matter more than companies. I believe in civil disobedience.

I am the 99%.

1 comment:

Monica said...

It's not because I know you that I think this is powerful. It just is.