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What must Brigitte Walker think about the presidential candidates? Ms. Walker is an Iraq War veteran, a former staff sergeant who served our country for 21 years until a spinal injury from a mortar attack forced her to leave the military. She comes from a proud family of veterans and service members, including a daughter in the army whose upcoming deployment, her third, will be to Afghanistan.
Ms. Walker’s injury and discharge sharply reduced her income and, for the first time, she began to have trouble making mortgage payments on her Georgia home.
In a devastated housing market, her house was worth less than half of what she had paid for it, and less than she still owed on her mortgage. So selling her home to repay the loan was not an option. Like 15 million other Americans—more than 30% of all U.S. homeowners—she was under water.
She contacted her lender, Chase, to seek a loan modification that would enable her to keep making payments and stay in her home. But like so many before her, the bank gave her the runaround. Chase repeatedly lost documents, gave misinformation, bounced her from employee to employee and, after two years, denied the modification and slated her home for foreclosure.
Ms. Walker was two weeks away from losing her home when Occupy Atlanta took up her cause and, together, they began pushing Chase to negotiate. “I fought for my country, and I knew I had the right to fight for my home,” she later said. When she returned from her first well-publicized demonstration, there was a message from a Chase executive on her answering machine. Chase quickly gave her a single contact person to negotiate a modification, and within days she was signing a new loan that she could afford.
Brigitte Walker saved her own home, but continues to serve her country—this time as a leading voice in the growing call for real solutions to America’s home opportunity crisis. She continues to tell her own story, and to elevate the stories of millions of others around the country—kids whose home and school lives were disrupted, seniors robbed of their nest egg, whole neighborhoods littered by vacant properties.
So what must Brigitte Walker think about the presidential candidates? Over the course of three presidential and vice presidential debates in which the main focus was the economy, no candidate offered a single new solution to address the crisis of home opportunity that continues to afflict the nation.
There was no mention of reducing to fair market value the principal owed by homeowners whose mortgages are held by Fannie Mae or Freddie Mac—both currently under federal control. No mention of expanding housing counseling, which saves taxpayer money as well as homes. Nothing about helping neighborhoods ravaged by predatory lending to rebuild their communities and financial security. And no discussion of aggressively enforcing fair housing and lending laws—as Governor Romney’s father did as HUD Secretary under President Nixon—to prevent future targeting of communities of color. The closest the candidates came to a solution was Mitt Romney’s promise to “repeal and replace” the consumer protections ushered in by the Dodd-Frank legislation—with what, he never said—and President Obama’s opposition to that move.
The candidates’ silence on this issue is as politically shortsighted as it is morally appalling. Ms. Walker stands in the shoes of millions of Americans. The abuse by banks and the financial industry, inadequate consumer protections, and massive long-term unemployment that caused the mortgage and homeownership crisis continue to plague a huge swath of the U.S. public, and to hold back our economy. And as an African-American and a veteran, Ms. Walker represents two of the groups that lenders specifically targeted for abusive practices.
In the battleground state of Florida alone there were 27,000 new foreclosure filings just in August—one out of every 328 homes in the state. Like Brigitte Walker, these struggling homeowners are also voters who could easily decide a close election in their states. Indeed, many have come together to organize large grassroots efforts, including the Home for Good coalition, the Home is Where the Vote is campaign, and the Home Defenders League of which Ms. Walker is a part.
In the weeks that remain until Election Day, President Obama and Governor Romney would do well to heed their call. After giving so much, Brigitte Walker has added her voice and leadership to the cause of home opportunity in America. It’s time for the presidential candidates to do the same.
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The Opportunity Agenda is a project of Tides Center