Marks Is His Name, Avoiding Foreclosure His Aim

One of the more colorful characters in the ongoing financial crisis is Bruce Marks. He runs a housing nonprofit that helps people avoid foreclosure. And he has some unorthodox tactics. Over the years, Marks has camped out on the front lawns of CEOs, made big scenes at their country clubs and dug into their personal lives to embarrass them. Marks has even been called a "bank terrorist."

Copyright © 2009 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:

One of the more colorful characters in the ongoing financial crisis is a man named Bruce Marks. He runs a housing nonprofit that's helping people avoid foreclosure, and he definitely has some unorthodox tactics in dealing with banks. Over the years, Marks has camped out on the front lawns of CEOs. He has made big scenes at their country clubs. He digs into their personal lives to embarrass them. As NPR's Chris Arnold reports, he's even been called a bank terrorist.

CHRIS ARNOLD: Bruce Marks's offices in Boston here are not in the high rent part of town. As you can hear, they're kind of sandwiched between some train tracks and a bus depot, with some giant oil-storage tanks towering over the whole place. But inside this totally unremarkable little brick building with the handle half broken off the front door is perhaps the most remarkable low-income housing advocate in the country.

So here we are in Bruce Marks's office and on the wall, there's a newspaper article framed and the headline is, "This Man is a Banking Terrorist." It doesn't seem like something you're ashamed of here.

MR. BRUCE MARKS (NACA): Oh no. Actually, I'm proud of it. We wear - I wear that as a badge of honor. Nonviolent bank terrorism is the way to go.

ARNOLD: Bruce Marks likes to protest banks. But he doesn't just protest. He's built up a nationwide lending operation with 500 employees in 38 offices around the country. It's called the Neighborhood Assistance Corporation of America, or NACA. NACA has access to billions of dollars for affordable loans for first-time home buyers. More on how he got that later. But he's built all this with some pretty aggressive tactics.

(Soundbite of protest)

ARNOLD: That was Marks protesting with a group of homeowners outside a Countrywide Bank branch back in 2007, as the mortgage crisis was unfolding. Five van-loads of protestors stormed inside the branch.

Mr. MARKS: We have to encourage people to boycott Countrywide, to not buy their CDs, to not do business with their bank.

ARNOLD: Marks says he's been an activist since college, but he wanted to understand business, so he got an MBA and worked at the Federal Reserve. He then formed his group to launch a campaign against what was then Fleet Bank. Marks says it was discriminating against minorities. The bank's CEO was a man named Terry Murray.

Mr. MARKS: We went after Terry Murray, their CEO, just - it was brutal. He was actually…

ARNOLD: Marks told the story at a recent training session for new NACA employees. He held protests at the CEO Terry Murray's house, at events where he was speaking. In Washington, Marks blockaded the entrance to the Federal Reserve to protest Fleet Bank. That's when he says that somebody spotted Alan Greenspan with two bodyguards.

Mr. MARKS: So we rush over and we surround Alan Greenspan, right? People are in this guy's face. Then I get a tap on the shoulder. The guy says that's not Alan Greenspan. That's the Italian finance minister, and so…

(Soundbite of laughter)

ARNOLD: But either way, Marks was making a big scene and embarrassing Fleet Bank.

Mr. MARKS: That's fine with us. We're fine with that.

ARNOLD: Fleet's then-CEO, Terry Murray, declined an interview. A former bank official denied the allegations, but the campaign went on for several years and in the end, the bank capitulated. Marks says that Fleet changed its lending practices and committed $140 million that Marks's group, NACA, itself was allowed to lend out to first-time home buyers.

Mr. MARKS: What it taught me is that everybody's got a breaking point, and you never know exactly what's going to have the most impact, so you try everything.

ARNOLD: In other campaigns, Marks has mailed rumor newsletters to the neighborhoods surrounding a CEO's home. In one case, he says he exposed an affair that a CEO was having with a subordinate. He's protested outside the schools of bank executives' kids. If that sounds a little over the line, Marks says that too many left-wing nonprofits are just too placid and ineffectual.

Mr. MARKS: I think the better model for NACA is what the Christian Coalition has done and the right to life, the anti-abortion organizations have done.

ARNOLD: So Marks goes after the banks with that same kind of fervor. In 1995, Marks was in Charlotte, North Carolina, to protest a bank called First Union. Across the street was the headquarters of Nation's Bank, soon to become Bank of America. It was run Hugh McCall, a famously tough and successful, military-style CEO. Marks called up McCall to ask for a meeting. Here's how Hugh McCall remembers it.

Mr. HUGH MCCALL (Former CEO, Bank of America): There were protestors and they had on - if I remember - yellow shirts with the sharks on the front of them, and I went down, shook hands with him, said I'd meet with him.

ARNOLD: Hugh McCall was probably the most powerful banker in the country.

Mr. MCCALL: He came up to my top floor, where we had our war room, and we sat in there together with a couple of my people, and we both speak very frankly, and we did.

Mr. MARKS: It was amazing, in a sense, because you know, obviously I've never been in a place like that.

ARNOLD: But Marks says he was still all fired up and in protest mode, so…

Mr. MARKS: It began with me saying to him that all bankers are evil, and him saying to me all nonprofits want a handout. And that's exactly how the meeting started.

ARNOLD: But McCall said Marks wasn't asking for a handout. He wanted his group to basically be the interface between the bank and lower-income borrowers. Marks's group was offering to counsel them for months, get their bank statements, and qualify them for home loans in a rigorous and sophisticated way. He wanted McCall's bank to put up the money for the loans.

Mr. MCCALL: I just thought, hey, this guy's not nuts. Maybe I can do business with him, so we said, okay, we'll try it.

ARNOLD: It started with a few hundred million dollars and later, Bank of America committed $6 billion for loans through Marks's group. And that's the thing about Marks. For all his protesting and craziness, Marks also needs the banks, and he needs to do business with them. Some banks are willing. They get credit for complying with Federal Fair Lending requirements, and Marks gets the financing to make loans to the people that he wants to help. So he's not just some guy with a bullhorn complaining about things.

Mr. MCCALL: No, he's smart. He had a radical approach to it but apparently, it worked for him.

ARNOLD: Yeah, I guess he got your attention, right?

Mr. MCCALL: He did.

ARNOLD: Some people say Marks is too radical and may be too on-message. For example, in this foreclosure mess, when Marks is near a microphone, he'll never admit that any homeowners share even some of the blame for getting into these loans that they ultimately couldn't afford. Here he is on CNBC, arguing with one of the hosts, Dennis Kneale.

(Soundbite of CNBC broadcast)

Mr. DENNIS KNEALE (CNBC Host): Homeowners did this to themselves.

Mr. MARKS: Oh, come on.

Mr. KNEALE: Why don't they take some responsibility?

Mr. MARKS: Come one, you're going to blame - you're going to blame the homeowner?

Mr. KNEALE: They bear some responsibility.

Mr. MARKS: No one can afford these mortgages of 10 or 12…

ARNOLD: Meanwhile, Bruce Marks is picking his next targets: executives who he says aren't doing enough to stop foreclosures. He's planning protests for this coming weekend at their homes.

Mr. MARKS: We've got over 50 vans going, right?

MR. JIM D'AGESTINO(ph) (NACA Researcher): That's right.

ARNOLD: One target is a top bank executive whose house is apparently surrounded by a wall and a lake. One of Marks's researchers, Jim D'Agestino, has been there casing it out.

Mr. D'AGESTINO: So we don't think that the lake is going to be frozen for…

Mr. MARKS: Probably not.

Mr. D'AGESTINO: Can we get a boat?

Mr. MARKS: We can get a boat. Like George Washington, 'cause when he went though those icy waters, it was part ice and part water.

Mr. DAGZITO: But I have rafts. We could just do the rafts, right?

ARNOLD: So it promises to be a lively weekend in some very nice neighborhoods. Chris Arnold, NPR News, Boston.

Copyright © 2009 NPR. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to NPR. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only, pursuant to our Terms of Use. Any other use requires NPR's prior permission. Visit our permissions page for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.