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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
And I'm Renee Montagne.
Let's listen again to something we heard earlier this week. It's the director of the new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, Richard Cordray, describing the way banks' systems help, or rather don't help, homeowners. He calls them broken.
RICHARD CORDRAY: Picture every bad customer service experience you've ever had: calls going unanswered, your paperwork submitted and lost repeatedly.
MONTAGNE: The bureau is pushing the nation's banks to do a better job preventing foreclosures. The banks say they've been making improvements. Still, thousands more Americans slide into foreclosure every week.
As part of our ongoing series on the American Dream, NPR's Chris Arnold has this report on a non-profit that's been helping homeowners get around these problems.
CHRIS ARNOLD, BYLINE: Over the past four years, Bruce Marks has been on a traveling roadshow. It's called the Save the American Dream Tour. His non-profit - it's called NACA - has held more than 80 events in cities around the country. And so far, Marks' groups helped 202,000 people to get their payments lowered so they can afford to keep their homes.
BRUCE MARKS: The banks now reach out to their borrowers to come to the NACA Save the Dream events, so they're doing that because it makes business sense for them.
ARNOLD: Basically, Marks says he's figured out how to get this broken system to work. In each city he rents out a big convention center or a stadium sometimes. And all the big banks - Wells Fargo, Bank of America, JP Morgan Chase - they send teams of people, sometimes it's several hundred bank employees all together. They're all on-site and they can actually approve loan modifications for the homeowners who show up and try to qualify.
REBECCA ASARE: It's not easy, you know. It's very, very hard because you work and you know you're trying to make ends meet and trying to get a place for your kids.
ARNOLD: Rebecca Asare is an immigrant from Ghana. She was at a recent NACA tour event in Worcester, Massachusetts. Back in 2009, Asare was working as a technician at a medical device company. But then she says the work got outsourced.
ASARE: To China, so there was a layoff and a lot of us had to go home. So I became struggling with my mortgage because I'm a single mom here. My husband is in Africa.
ARNOLD: Asare has since managed to go back to school and she's got a job as a nursing assistant. So she has a decent income again and she wants to find a way to keep her house.
But Marks says for years even when it's clearly made sense to keep a family in their home and paying their mortgage - by offering them a lower interest rate - he says the banks too often foreclose anyway, sometimes over seemingly crazy reasons. In some case they're missing a tax document that the homeowner already faxed in three times.
MARKS: This is the most dysfunctional industry in the world.
ARNOLD: The banks, of course, deny that. But they admit that their systems were not prepared to handle the scale of the foreclosure crisis.
In any case, four years ago, Marks decided that if the banks' computers and call centers weren't built to handle the problem, then he'd build his own system.
MARKS: What we did is we learned what didn't work. We kept failing at various things. So then what we learned is we had to go outside of the banks; we had to set up our own systems. In essence we had to do the work for them. And that's what we do.
ARNOLD: So when homeowners show up at these events, before they talk to any bank representatives, NACA counselors help them scan in all their documents into a computer system that NACA developed itself.
MARKS: So this where the counseling gets done. We go through the process here. We're getting all the documents, we scan it in...
ARNOLD: Tax forms, identification, bank statements. If they're missing things, they're told to run home and get them. And NACA organizes all this into a nice, neat package for the banks.
Now, you might imagine when Bruce Marks first told the nation's largest banks he wanted them to patch into his non-profit's computer system...
MARKS: They said never. We don't do that 'cause this is Bank of America, this is Chase, this is Wells, we have our own systems.
ARNOLD: But Marks does a pretty good angry bulldog imitation. And when the banks would say no to things like this, he'd round up hundreds of homeowners and go protest at the banks' headquarters, and sometimes even at some CEO's houses and country clubs. Eventually the banks came around. At one point he was targeting JP Morgan Chase's CEO, Jamie Dimon. This was back in 2009 and it turns out that Dimon's house is on the edge of a lake.
MARKS: We were going to bring hundreds of people's on rafts, going over water to do a beach landing on his property.
ARNOLD: Engines and the whole thing? I mean pontoons...
MARKS: And speakers and the whole thing.
ARNOLD: That protest, though, never actually happened. Because after Marks started buying up landing rafts for this homeowner flotilla, Chase got wind of all this and Marks says the bank quickly agreed to take part in his Save the Dream Tours. Marks says since then Chase has been a very good partner. The bank, though, had no comment.
But while the banks seem to be playing ball with Marks right now, sometimes his aggressive style creates conflicts with people who you might think would be his friends. During his road shows, he's had some turf battles with local housing non-profits, for example, but the show always goes on. What's going on over there?
ASARE: Somebody get approved again.
ARNOLD: When a homeowner gets approved for help over in the Bank of America area, the bank employees actually wave plastic clapper noisemakers and ring a gong. Homeowner Rebecca Asare is sitting over there now with Bank of America mortgage specialist Deanzala Johnson, who told her that she qualified to keep her house with a modified and affordable mortgage payment. Do you remember what she said when she said, okay, you're approved?
DEANZALA JOHNSON: We clap. We use our clappers and we clap, yeah.
ASARE: I clapped and I was thanking - I was like, thank you, Jesus.
JOHNSON: She did. She was like, I really like you, I want to thank you, and she was like, can I have you number? We really don't - we travel, so we don't have contact numbers.
ASARE: How joyful I am, smiling in my face, everywhere.
ARNOLD: Asare says she's already called her 12-year-old daughter.
ASARE: My daughter says something. Mommy, can you fix my room back again for me because you pack all the stuff?
ARNOLD: Oh, you mean because you had her clothes packed up?
ASARE: Yeah. Because I packed most of it, you know, and moved it to the garage and stuff because I don't - I was getting prepared also.
ARNOLD: It turns out that Asare was so worried about getting foreclosed on that for months the kids had been living out of suitcases. But now Asare has a clean slate and can keep her house. If she stays current, Bank of America will actually pay NACA for negotiating a successful outcome. Of course not every homeowner who shows up here has enough income to qualify. Deanzala Johnson...
JOHNSON: We can't make everyone happy, so that's just basically - I mean we try our best to, you know, do what we can as far as we can go.
ARNOLD: But for those that do get a loan modification, Marks estimates that more than 90 percent of homeowners keep making their payments even after a year. This week, the group starts at two more Save the Dream events, one on Long Island in New York, and the other in St. Louis. Chris Arnold, NPR News, Boston.
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