Ordinary people and financial reform

A lot of people in Washington claim to be on the side of families in the Wall Street reform debate, but a whole lot of ordinary people like me feel shut out and don’t have much of a voice.

A few years ago, my wife and I purchased our first home. We were hard-working, play-by-the-rules newlyweds. We had money to put toward a down payment, but at every turn people who represented themselves as experts told us money down wasn't necessary. 

"Why would you throw money at a loan when you can get 100 percent financing," we were told. "The only way this could go south is if the economy and housing market crashes at the same time. And that will never happen." 

When I had open-heart surgery to repair a valve two years ago, I didn’t question my surgeon because I knew he was the expert. I know now that real estate professionals are different – they have conflicts of interests and face little regulation – but I didn’t know that when I bought my home.

Like the majority of Americans, regardless of how hard we try, how hard we work, how much we sacrifice, and how much we go without, we still barely manage to eke out a living. We bought a 1200-square-foot house nearly a century old. The basement floods when it rains, the roof needs work, and it’s cold in the winter. We have no hope of ever actually owning it. 

After a two-year battle with a loan servicer, we are left with a home that has lost nearly 40 percent of its value. We owe $30,000 more than we did when we originally bought the house because of the fees and fines the servicer added. And, for months – if not years – we had no one to turn to. Nobody in Washington returned our calls.

I began looking around the Internet for stories from homeowners on forums and complaint boards – collecting links and watching in frustration as people lost their homes and their hope. I joined online discussion groups, talked to other homeowners. I wrote blog posts and developed a Twitter following. Dozens of people began sending me similar stories. 

There wasn’t much I could do with the stories, but this much was clear: Nobody in Washington was listening to them or returning their calls either. More than 300,000 homeowners continue to face foreclosure every month – many of whom have filled out permanent modification paperwork countless times like me, only to be given the run-around time and time again.

This is why we started Shamethebanks.org – a website designed to give people affected by the lack of financial rules a way to tell their story in their own words. In a very short period of time, countless people have shared their stories and hundreds more have registered on the site.

Remarkably, Washington started paying attention. I had the opportunity to go to Capitol Hill and meet with administration and congressional staffers. Apparently my message got through. Some senators have been to the site and have reached out to their constituents.

Listening, however, is not enough. The same staffers, after all, also listen to the big banks pounding on their door with an army of lobbyists armed with complicated but bogus reasons why the status quo works for families and shouldn’t be changed.

If meaningful financial reform does not happen in this country, the financial institutions will continue to take from Main Street until there’s nothing left. What happened to my family will happen to millions more. We will see future crises and future bailouts. This is why we need new and more aggressive anti-foreclosure policy –  and why we need a new consumer agency to prevent banks from tricking and trapping people like me. We cannot let the financial industry continue to chip away at these reforms.

It is time for senators to show whose side they are really on. Millions of ordinary people – the ones so many in Washington claim to represent – will be watching closely. We want them to stop siding with the banks.

Richard Zombeck is an information technology specialist living in Salem, Mass.  He is also founder of the website ShametheBanks.org.