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'Save the Dream Tour' rides into the Chaifetz Arena in hopes of fending off foreclosures

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, July 27, 2009 - Dressed in gunslinger black, Bruce Marks, CEO of the Neighborhood Assistance Corporation of America, looked every bit the maverick as he met with St. Louis media to detail the "Save the Dream Tour," an effort by his nonprofit community advocacy group to get homeowners with unaffordable mortgages same-day loan restructuring.

And there was nothing timid about the plans Marks outlined at the press conference last week at Chaifetz Arena, which his group -- known as NACA -- has rented for the four-day event that starts Friday and runs through Aug. 3. Marks is busing in 250 housing counselors to assist thousands of homeowners he expects to attract from Missouri and southwestern Illinois. St. Louis is the third stop on a national 10-city tour that opened in Cleveland on July 17.

"We had over 35,000 people come, over 20,000 households," said Marks about the group's four-day stint in Cleveland. "And over 5,000 people got their mortgages restructured the same day."

Marks said the goal is to restructure existing loans to make them affordable by reducing interest rates and, in some cases, reducing the outstanding principal. He attributes NACA's ability to accomplish restructures to the legally binding agreements the organization has with major servicers that, he says, cover 90 percent of U.S. mortgages. NACA is a HUD-certified organization with 38 offices nationwide. The mortgage counseling services are free.

"And I want to be really clear: It's not a refinance," he said. "When you're talking about a refinance you're talking about a new loan, where you have to look at someone's credit score, the value of the property, the debt ratios, paying off a second mortgage. We're talking about restructuring the existing mortgage to permanently reduce the interest rate to as low as 4, 3, 2 or in some cases less than 2 percent and lock that in for the life of the loan. And if that doesn't get to the affordable payment, then you reduce the outstanding principal."

Although NACA has a small staff in St. Louis, most local homeowners are probably unfamiliar with the organization Marks founded in Boston in 1988.

They might, however, recall headlines spurred by the group's "predator tour" last winter into the tony suburbs surrounding New York. In February, Marks led several hundred yellow-shirted NACA protestors to demonstrate outside the homes of CEOs of financial institutions that he said were balking at renegotiating loan terms for struggling homeowners. The demonstrators carried signs demanding "Fix our loans, save our homes" and, even dumped furniture on a lawn to symbolize the possessions of evicted homeowners.

'Junkyard Dogs'

"If they don't do the right thing, we'll be back," Marks told the Associated Press. "We are the junkyard dogs. Once we grab on, we will not let go."It is that no-nonsense "junkyard dog" approach that has successfully pressured reluctant lenders to work with NACA, he said.

"We've been the most aggressive advocacy organization out there. We believe it's personal when someone loses their home," said Marks whose black shirt was punctuated by a gold NACA logo and the words "Financial Predators Beware."

"When someone loses their home, they lose their neighbors. Their children lose their schools. Their lives are turned upside down. Well, we go to the homes of CEOs who are making the decisions on foreclosing on people. In a nonviolent but personal way, we bring 3, 4, 500 people to the doorsteps of the CEO's homes. We want them to meet the people they're foreclosing on."

Joining Marks at the press conference was St. Louis Comptroller Darlene Green; Harry Kennedy, legislative director of the board of aldermen; Charles Bryson, director of public safety; and Missouri Rep. Steve Webb. The local officials encouraged people who need help with their mortgages to attend the NACA event.

"I represent the 74th district of Missouri that has been ravaged by foreclosure," Webb said. "With the Ford plant closing, the Boeing layoffs, the Chrysler closing, a lot of people have lost their homes. And whatever we can do to stop that, I'm willing to be a part of. Everyday people are struggling to pay their mortgages, and the program Bruce has put together seems to be one that will help folks stay in their homes."

Hey, Look Me Over

Though Marks says he isn't comfortable at press conferences, he deftly handled questions and then made himself available afterward to answer more -- all the while fielding calls on his cell phone.

He addressed the question of the day before any reporter in the room had time to ask it.

"Our biggest issue is it sounds too good to be true," he said about the "Save the Dream" tour.

He then introduced several St. Louis-area homeowners who credited local NACA counselors with helping them save their homes. As they spoke, Marks - a compact man in his mid-50s - stood off to the side, his eyes beaming.

Antonio Green of Alton said he'd had no success in dealing with his lender -- Countrywide - after the recession took a toll on his income as a truck driver. He said that a friend referred him to NACA, which helped him restructure his mortgage from an adjustable rate of 7.4 percent to a 1.8 percent fixed rate. He said he was thrilled when he learned that his monthly payment was cut by $500 a month.

"I ran through the whole house screaming," Green said after the press conference.

Homeowners assisted by NACA become members of the group - Marks refers to them as his army of 700,000 -- and agree to participate in activities promoting the group's advocacy efforts.

Marks encouraged homeowners to go to the NACA website at www.naca.com and check out his organization. There, they will find information about the organization's services, including the Home Save foreclosure intervention program, as well as a separate mortgage program billed as "the best mortgage product in America." There are also media clips from the likes of The Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, NBC and CNN, plus a gallery of pictures of CEOS (and their luxury homes) who still won't deal with NACA.

"When someone does their homework, they feel comfortable with who we are. And remember, I'm on the floor [during the tour], I'm meeting everybody. I'm in my element when I'm on the floor," Marks said.

"When you hear my presentation to all the homeowners, the first question I ask is how many people here think it's too good to be true. And I say if you haven't raised your hand, you're not doing your homework. Because everybody should ask that question. Not just about NACA but across the board."

Gloves off in Cleveland

A web search of NACA will also turn up news stories about the current tour. A fair number of them are based on the advance press conferences, while others describe the massive counseling sessions.

To be sure, there are examples of homeowners happily detailing the same-day workouts they got in Cleveland or at similar NACA events in Washington and Columbia, S.C. But there are also some stories of people who say they were unable to get same-day restructuring and weeks later were still waiting to hear whether their loan workouts and been approved by lenders. Some reported that they waited on hold for extended periods when they tried to call the NACA phone number they were given.

Two days after the Cleveland event, Cuyahoga County Treasurer Jim Rokakis was quoted in a local television report as questioning the number of success stories cited by NACA. The report by WKYC quoted Marks as standing by his numbers. "They would rather have people lose their houses than bring somebody in to save them," Marks told the station.

Rokakis told the Beacon that he is not opposed to NACA's efforts and that his misgivings are not a question of "turf."

"I think if they helped to save people from losing their homes and re-fi their loans I think that's spectacular," Rokakis said. "If they helped to refinance 1,000 mortgages that's great. I just can't verify what they did."

Rokakis has a history of working against predatory lenders that pre-dates the current mortgage crisis, and a foreclosure prevention program is headquartered in his office. Cleveland was beset with foreclosure problems between 2000 and 2006, he said, and although the foreclosure rate continues to be a major problem, the city has since taken a back seat to hard-hit cities in California, Arizona, Nevada and Florida.

"We have a very active foreclosure prevention effort here that started out of this office in March of 2006 -- our 'Don't Borrow Trouble' campaign. You call 211 the United Way's help line. Then we refer you to one of the four counseling agencies we work with. They've been doing this for 2 1/2 years, and it's hard work," Rokakis said. "It's one property at a time. It has been painful because so much of the time they [the lenders] refuse to do any negotiating. In spite of that we've done thousands of loan modifications and loan re-fis. It's tough work."

Rokakis said he has heard the "Save the Dream Tour" likened to a tent revival.

"They come into town and get everybody fired up with religious fervor and then leave without any real direction -- what to do in the future. What church to visit in the future."

'Lone Ranger' Approach

NACA's "Lone Ranger" approach also irked some of Cleveland's nonprofit agencies that work in foreclosure prevention.

Mark Seifert, executive director of the Empowering and Strengthening Ohio's People (ESOP) program, referred to NACA as a "foreign group," though the organization has a small office in Cleveland. Seifert said that some homeowners who had been working with ESOP, which provides counseling statewide, went to the NACA event and reported that counselors there were critical of local programs. (To read an analysis by UMSL Professor Todd Swanstrom of what's being done to help stem foreclosures, particularly in St. Louis and Cleveland, click here .)

Seifert also questioned NACA's numbers and said he had been hearing from homeowners who were unable to get same-day workouts and unable to get follow-up information on their cases.

Seifert said it isn't a case of sour grapes for the local agencies.

"Trust me, ESOP does not need any more business," he said, pointing to the fact that the agency far exceeded its projected foreclosure cases last year.

"We need to use each other's strengths. And trashing organizations -- especially when you're from the outside -- is not going to do anything to help the homeowner," Seifert said.

While some of Marks' critics say they are uncomfortable with his in-your-face tactics against lenders, that is not the case with Seifert, whose group is also known for its advocacy, including throwing two-inch plastic sharks on the lawns of lenders it considers predatory.

Asked by reporters in St. Louis about the Cleveland results, Marks said that homeowners who didn't get same-day solutions would eventually be helped - and that same-day workouts were not possible for everyone because the volume of paperwork had overwhelmed the lenders.

In an interview with the Beacon after the press conference, Marks said NACA is able to find solutions for most homeowners, even those who have lost income due to the recession.

"If someone is underemployed or unemployed there's a forbearance where we give them time to get back on their feet," he said. "So they might make a minimum payment or maybe even no payment for a period of time until they get income. Then when they have the income, they do the restructure."

Wait and See

In St. Louis, local nonprofit agencies that work in foreclosure prevention say they will be watching the goings-on at Chaifetz with great interest.

Karen Wallensak, director of the Catholic Charities Housing Resource Center, urged homeowners to be savvy consumers and to shop for an agency the same way they would shop for any important financial service. She said homeowners should take their time before making any financial decision and to make sure the organization they choose has a working mechanism for continued communication -- because there will always be follow-up questions and problems.

"A homeowner can complete a workout, and then go home and find a layoff notice in the mail," she said.

Whether homeowners will find more success with one agency or another can depend on various factors, including timing. Their own financial situation might change - or there are policy changes by the government or lenders.

"It rarely does any good to publicly question another agency - we all have our successes and failures. We all have different styles," she said. "We need to be working together and not separately."

Wallensak said she hopes the NACA weekend event is wildly successful.

"And then we'll keep fighting the good fight in the St. Louis area to prevent families from losing their homes to foreclosure."

Sadly, she said, there is no threat of local agencies running out of customers.

"There are plenty more for us to share," she said.

Mary Delach Leonard is a veteran journalist who joined the St. Louis Beacon staff in April 2008 after a 17-year career at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, where she was a reporter and an editor in the features section. Her work has been cited for awards by the Missouri Associated Press Managing Editors, the Missouri Press Association and the Illinois Press Association. In 2010, the Bar Association of Metropolitan St. Louis honored her with a Spirit of Justice Award in recognition of her work on the housing crisis. Leonard began her newspaper career at the Belleville News-Democrat after earning a degree in mass communications from Southern Illinois University-Edwardsville, where she now serves as an adjunct faculty member. She is partial to pomeranians and Cardinals.