By MITCHELL SOMMERS
I’ll call him Carlos, though that’s not his name, and I’ll change just enough facts so you can’t track the case, but what I say is true.
Carlos bought a house in a neighborhood in Lancaster, Pennsylvania that could have been, and wasn’t that far from, the neighborhood where I grew up. Working class. Solid people, solid homes. Brick mostly, rowhomes and semi-detached, mostly. Narrow streets where, when it snowed, people would put chairs, tables, sometimes entire dinette sets out on the street to save the parking space they’d just spent two hours shoveling out, and don’t even think about parking there if it wasn’t in front of your house.
Carlos bought the house at the peak of the market. Admittedly, a Central Pennsylvania peak is not a Vegas peak or a Southern California peak. But a peak is a peak, and a bubble is a bubble, and a foreclosure is a foreclosure.
Carlos was losing the house. He got a mortgage that was dicey at best. And when he had his heart attack, and couldn’t work for a while, it became dicier still. But he wanted to keep the house.
In the recession’s early harbingers, everyone wanted to keep the house. That’s not true as often now, as more people come to me ready to dump the $200,000.00 house with the $255,000.00 mortgage. But in the late middle of the last decade, everybody wanted to keep the house.
So there Carlos was, with one of his adult children, and me, his lawyer, all pacing outside bankruptcy court, trying to think of ways to keep the house.
Carlos tells me he will get more hours at work. He tells me he has a part time job. He tells me he can look for a third job.
I remind him about that heart attack thingy. His child listens intently, intensely, hearing things not heard before, or at least not listened to before.
Carlos starts crying. I’m used to crying. I’ve done family law, and criminal defense, and I see more tears from people losing their house than I do people losing their marriage or their freedom. But being used to it doesn’t make being in its vortex any easier or more comfortable. Only familiar.
“My kids are in that house. What kind of man am I if I can’t keep my kids in their house?”
There are things I could tell him. That his identity as a man is not tied up in bricks and mortar. That’s true for some. But it wasn’t true for Carlos. His identity was precisely tied up in every brick. And even if there was some way of reaching Carlos, some white guy in a suit outside a courtroom was not going to be the guy that helped him make that emotional leap.
His child took me aside. Acknowledged knowing nothing of how bad it was until today. Wondered why Dad hadn’t approached for help.
But we both knew the answer to that.
I kept Carlos in the house that day. He made his promises to the judge, and he stayed. Until he couldn’t keep those promises, because his heart was not in his heart, and eventually, he lost his house.
I’ve kept many people in their houses. I’ve helped many people get out of debt. I’ve helped many people modify horrible mortgages, and smacked back credit card suits from companies that buy old debt at five cents on the dollar and can’t even prove they own the debt. I’m not bragging. Trust me. There’s nothing in my job worth bragging about. It’s just what I do. I don’t pull it off all the time, but I pull it off enough so I feel that my mental scoreboard is still more or less in my favor.
Every once in a while, though, I come back to Carlos. The neighborhood I grew up in, the neighborhood he once owned a piece of, that neighborhood didn’t have too many Carloses in it when I was a kid. Now it’s no big deal for a Carlos to be there. Which is kind of how America is supposed to work. Except when it doesn’t.
There are all kinds of good reasons that people shouldn’t reflexively think “I have to buy a house.” If the recession teaches Americans anything, it should be that a house is not a guaranteed investment. It’s not an ATM.
Somehow, though, I don’t think Carlos was thinking of those things exclusively when he signed a big stack of documents and bought a brick rowhome glued to a hideously bad mortgage. He was just buying a tiny plot of America. That’s all. That’s everything.
The day Carlos lost his house, I failed America. And every time someone has to lose a house, even if it’s the right thing to do from a purely financial sense—and most of the time, it is—someone else is failing America.
Unlike all the other lenders and mortgage servicers out there, I, at least, will admit it.