Bank of America To Donate Some Foreclosed Homes

Bank of America announced this week it will give away 2,500 distressed homes to military vets and to other charities for people who are in need.

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The past few years have not been good for the banking industry's image: reckless lending, housing bust and, of course, massive bank bailouts. Banks even admitted rushing foreclosures with sloppy paperwork. Well, at least one bank is now trying to improve its image in the eyes of some families.

As NPR's Yuki Noguchi reports, it's giving away some of those foreclosed homes.

YUKI NOGUCHI, BYLINE: It was 5:55 in the morning on April 27th last year when a tornado cut a path toward Wanda Naylor's Pratt City, Alabama, bedroom.

WANDA NAYLOR: They say it sounds like a train, and that's what it sounds like.

NOGUCHI: Shattering glass and blocks of wall bore down on Naylor.

NAYLOR: Everything was gone. When I looked up, I was looking up at the sky, looking outside. And I mean, it was just like I was outside.

NOGUCHI: The 64-year-old bus driver took shelter in a motel until insurance ran out, threatening to leave her homeless. But Naylor caught a break. Bank of America donated homes for tornado victims through Habitat for Humanity. And for the first time in her life, Naylor became a homeowner at a cost less than her previous rent.

NAYLOR: When they told me I was approved, I just started praising the Lord, just started praising the Lord. I just said thank you, Jesus. Thank you, Jesus. Oh, hallelujah. Thank you, Jesus.

NOGUCHI: Bank of America has been giving away some of the homes it has repossessed through foreclosure. Today, the bank is announcing it will give away 2,500 homes over the next two years, many of them to Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans like Matthew Sheffel.

Sheffel served for 12 years and is now a single father of five, nursing wounds to his arm. Earlier this week, he received the keys to a donated house in San Antonio.

MATTHEW SHEFFEL: It's a wonderful feeling. I mean, to finally have a place to get the care that me and the kids need, more stability and a place to actually call our home.

NOGUCHI: Steve Boland is mortgage outreach executive for Bank of America.

STEVE BOLAND: It's really just an unbelievable feeling 'cause you realize the impact that you're having for that family. While they're expressing so much gratitude to us, I got to tell you, you know, the feeling for us is equally gratifying.

NOGUCHI: The keys are handed over with lots of ceremony. At these events, local bank employees often stock the house with food and supplies. Boland says, you know those shows that refurbish homes and then hand them over to a family that invariably falls to their knees and cry for joy?

BOLAND: It felt like that.

NOGUCHI: Still, public resentment of banks runs high. A June Gallup poll showed Americans have record low confidence in banks. And Boland acknowledges this.

BOLAND: It's nice to be able to do something positive out of what's been clearly a very difficult period in our industry.

NOGUCHI: The giveaways may not change the broader public's view of banks, but they have for Leroy Sisco.

LEROY SISCO: I'm the wrong guy to say anything bad about these institutions. I love them.

NOGUCHI: Sisco is a retired Army lieutenant general. Now, he heads the Military Warriors Support Foundation. Sisco's foundation works with the banks to identify vacant homes where a wounded veteran wants to live. Sisco says he approached Bank of America about the idea last year. Chase and Wells Fargo also support the effort.

Unlike Habitat for Humanity, which sells its homes through no interest loans, Sisco's foundation gives them away, mortgage-free. Both Habitat for Humanity and the veteran's foundation require financial counseling as a precondition to getting a house to ensure the family can hang onto it.

For Eric Griego and his wife, getting a free home did solve his financial worries.

ERIC GRIEGO: Huge weight of stress off both of our shoulders.

NOGUCHI: Griego, an Army Scout, lost a lung, several ribs and survived battlefield surgery after taking a bullet through his neck while on duty in Afghanistan. The 24-year-old, his daughter, and his wife, who is in the Air Force, received their keys this week. He says it felt strange getting the hero treatment when he says so many others served longer or lost more.

GRIEGO: The ones who didn't come home, they don't get as much recognition as they deserve.

NOGUCHI: Griego worked as a bank teller before his deployment. He says he understands why people get frustrated with banks, but he also says they aren't monoliths.

GRIEGO: I think a bank has a different reputation than the people that work for it.

NOGUCHI: They plan to move into their three-bedroom house in Tucson, Arizona, next month.

Yuki Noguchi NPR News.

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