THE ACORN OFFICE is swamped. In Portland's local branch of the national community-organizing nonprofit, the phone rings 30 times a day with calls from desperate people who can no longer afford to pay their mortgage. Some wait to call until the day of sale, when they and all their possessions need to be out the foreclosed front door in 24 hours.
While real estate and financial observers in Oregon have argued that Portland's strong economy has allowed it to fight off the worst of the foreclosure crisis, local groups working with low-income individuals are ringing the alarm. For Portland's elderly and minority communities, especially, the housing situation is grim. And, according to nonprofits working on the issue, it will get worse.
On Saturday, November 22, at Portland Community College on N Killingsworth, Reverend Renee Ward took the stage to wrap up the mortgage foreclosure summit she organized.
"I'm going to use my preacher voice," she said, smiling and thanking the prominent elected officials like City Commissioner Nick Fish and Attorney General-elect John Kroger, who had come to talk to neighborhood residents about the financial problems affecting their area.
Ward's grandfather was a real-estate agent and managed 30 homes in North Portland, but these days the family's real-estate situation has reversed: Her mom is facing foreclosure. "It's the classic story of so many elders," explains Ward. "She was a retiree with medical issues and fixed income and in her efforts to refinance she was taken advantage of."
After pillaging her own retirement account to keep her mom in her house—and seeing many others make similar tough decisions—Ward decided some sort of community education was needed. Ward, who is African American herself, points to widespread misinformation and a reluctance to speak up about financial troubles until it's too late.
"Culturally speaking, in an African American community, we don't talk about it. Finances: It's like mixing politics with religion. We don't mix it," says Ward.
In addition to lack of financial education and rough economic times, recent research reveals that Oregon lenders doled out bad loans disproportionately to people of color. In a study done in January, the Oregon Center for Public Policy found banks and other lenders had roped nearly half of African American and Hispanic borrowers into sub-prime loans, while only 25 percent of whites of the same income levels got sub-prime loans.
Outside the lecture hall, volunteer Shannon Mills stood at a table handing out paper door hangers listing phone numbers of groups that can help with foreclosures.
"People started calling as soon as they saw the flyers," says Mills, who hopes worried homeowners will get educated instead of giving up hope and calling the moving van. "We want to reach people before that point, we want people to know their options before they're losing their home," says Mills. "People are scared and don't want to call the bank. That's the first thing to do."
Mills got involved in foreclosure work after spending a week in Ohio during election season. Seeing the foreclosure fallout there made her worry for Portland's communities. "There were blocks where all of the houses were shuttered—beautiful houses, like Westmoreland—not just up for sale and foreclosed, but completely shuttered," says Mills.
"A lot of Portlanders think we ducked the housing crisis, that it's not as bad here as California or Nevada," says Kevin Sheehan, office director at Oregon ACORN. He concedes that Portland's foreclosure crisis isn't as severe as some other areas (according to mortgage tracking website realtytrac.com, Oregon has the 16th highest default rate) but there are still grave problems locally.
"We met with the [Portland Development Commission] on Monday and the city knows there is a crisis," says Sheehan. "They're doing a good job of reaching out to housing nonprofits."
On a state level, though, progressive groups are not so happy with the way the government is handling the impending crisis. In July 2007, political nonprofit Our Oregon published a report optimistically titled "The coming wave: Oregon is about to be hit by the sub-prime lending tsunami."
"At the time, everyone was like, 'You're crazy, you're crying the sky is falling! Oregon isn't going to have that kind of foreclosures,'" says Angela Martin, director of Our Oregon's economic fairness coalition. Martin says the state missed major opportunities to avoid crisis thanks to the political strength of lobbyists from banks and mortgage companies.
Last spring, State Senator Ben Westlund put together a foreclosure protection bill based on recommendations from housing nonprofits. Among other things, the bill banned "steering," a practice in which brokers get financial bonuses when they sign borrowers up for higher interest rates, even if they qualify for low ones. Facing strong opposition from financial lobbyists, the bill died. The governor is in the beginning stages of putting together a mortgage foreclosure bill for the next legislative session.
But for now, the strongest hope for troubled homeowners seems to come from their neighbors.