1. How have predatory lending and home foreclosures affected Cleveland?
They have devastated my community: sealed up, vacant, dilapidated houses, half torn down -- it's hard to say if it's a ghost town or a cemetery or what. And this was allowed to happen, that’s the part that cuts to my heart. People who could make a difference knew it, the lenders knew it, the regulators knew it, and everyone was trying to sweep it under the rug, in the name of greed.
2. How were the people in your community targeted by predatory lenders?
Lots of times they were court-ordered to have minor repairs on their houses -- steps, porch. The judge was saying, "If you don’t get these violations repaired, you're going to have to pay a fine or I can put you in jail." You would have brokers -- really, scammers -- in the courts, so you tend to give into the scammer to borrow $4,000 or $5,000. But when you came out, you had a $50,000 loan that you didn’t know you had.
3. How does ESOP prevent homeowners in foreclosure from losing their homes?
We do whatever we need to do to expose lenders to what they were doing wrong. Everybody has a heart; it may be a hard heart, but they have a heart. We find a way to get to the person who can make decisions; they don’t want that bad PR. Then we work out agreements to stop predatory practices and we help them rewrite people’s loans.
At the same time, if a homeowner is having problems, we say to the lender, "Let us know if they miss that payment," because we can get to the people. You don't gain anything by putting a person out of their house. You lose.
4. What has surprised you in your work?
Regulators that are supposed to regulate the lending institutions did not do their job, and it seemed like they did not care. There were no checks and balances. When we were first doing predatory lending issues, regulators [said], "No, no, this is not happening." They were in denial. The FTC, on the data we provided them, sued Fairbanks [Capital], because we weren’t going to stop.
5. Who is one homeowner who's inspired you?
A lady named Barbara lives on one of those streets that’s like a ghost town, but Barbara has been able to get young people working to board up houses and put some type of mural on them so they don't look so bad. She's gotten a lender to donate a building, and they’re going to try to help homeless people and felons that can't get jobs. We try to encourage people to pass it on, to help someone else, to stand up with someone else.
6. What gives you hope?
I find hope in God, my creator. I truly believe that everything God created is good for a purpose. The Word says, "Am I my brother's keeper?" -- and yes, we are. God wants us to help each other, and uses people to do God’s will.
—Interview by Betsy Shirley