Ordinary Americans Left Out of Bailout

Published on
by
The Toronto Star

Ordinary Americans Left Out of Bailout

by
Marc Kielburger and Craig Kielburger

Mark Seifert tours reporters around streets more reminiscent of Baghdad than Cleveland, Ohio. They are deserted. The homes are boarded up, covered in graffiti. Once residential neighbourhoods, they are now hangouts for drug dealers.

At the end stands a nice little ranch with a kept garden. It's the home of an elderly couple who have lived here for decades. Their mortgage is paid off but the value of their home has depreciated by half. They cannot sell. They have nowhere to go.

"You really have to feel for them. They are all alone here," says Seifert. "It's a war zone."

War zone, indeed. When the executive director of Empowering and Strengthening Ohio's People conducts tours for veteran journalists, they are blown away. One journalist who covered Hurricane Katrina said the streets looked like New Orleans.

"Black, white. Young, old. It's affecting everyone," says Seifert. "This is America."

You can hear the frustration in Seifert's voice. The man has every right to be frustrated. For years, Seifert has worked with people facing foreclosure due to subprime loans. Despite his hard work, the crisis has spread beyond Cleveland's borders and into the heart of the American dream.

Seifert's story goes back to 1999, when his organization focused on lobbying efforts like getting more crossing guards. Suddenly, residents stopped coming to meetings. Seifert called to ask why and found their phone lines were cut. The community members were losing their homes.

"We didn't even know what predatory lending was at the time. I don't think it was a term that was used," he says. "But we knew we had a problem."

Quickly, Seifert's changed his focus. His organization doubled its staff, hiring loan counsellors to renegotiate mortgages and prevent foreclosure.

Cleveland was only the epicentre of the growing battlefield. There, entire neighbourhoods were foreclosed on while Seifert's organization was overwhelmed by people trying to work out their mortgage woes, going from 1,500 in 2007 to almost 3,700 this year.

Seifert watched what he says could have been prevented.

"What we're talking about isn't rocket science," he says. "I mean, wake up guys. You shouldn't have been making loans without asking for a pay stub. With that one little thing, we could have stopped the crisis. Now, it's destroying our economy and it's being exported around the world."

In the end, Seifert places most of the blame on the government. He says it could have regulated the industry rather than ignore the problem until it affected a less marginalized population.

Seifert says the government's $700 billion bailout may help the banks but does nothing for ordinary Americans left homeless as they struggle with their mortgage payments. These are people who wanted a home, who were simply living the American dream.

"We just don't think people should have been set up to fail," he says.

Craig and Marc Kielburger are children's rights activists and co-founded Free The Children, which is active in the developing world. Online: Craig and Marc Kielburger discuss global issues every Monday in the World & Comment section. Take part in the discussion online at thestar.com/globalvoices.

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