Over 800 homeowners, clergy, and organizers gathered outside JP Morgan Chase's annual shareholders meeting Tuesday, while about 15* protesters testified inside, asking Chase executives questions about foreclosure and accountability.
"We're trying to bring attention to the nation, the city, the state, of how profitable JP Morgan is and yet they're still foreclosing on our communities," said Roger Davis, an organizer with Communities United For Action in Cincinnati. "If they would just give the people a decent modification, we wouldn't have that problem. I mean it's better to keep someone in their house than kicking them out of their house, and now you've really devastated the community."
Davis, who testified inside the meeting, asked Chase CEO Jamie Dimon if he would help and stop foreclosures. Davis said Dimon responded by apologizing for "paperwork errors" that have led to thousands of foreclosures in Ohio. State attorney generals and consumer watchdogs have called them much more than "paperwork errors," pointing to widespread fraud in banks' foreclosure filings and mortgage servicers deliberately giving borrowers applying for the federally financed modification program the runaround.
Melowese Richardson of Cincinnati also testified inside the shareholders meeting. Richardson says she took over her childhood home of 40 years after a 2003 foreclosure, following her father's death. Two years later, the house foreclosed again and became bank-owned property, but remained in her name on public records. Richardson has since been receiving notices from the city threatening hefty fines and jail time for Chase's failure to maintain the property--a negligence that community advocates have said recurs nationally, creating further blight in neighborhoods swarmed by foreclosures.
"They didn't do their part. Chase keeps foreclosing on properties and they simply walk away. They won't want the property because they don't want the maintenance expenses," Richardson said.
Richardson said that foreclosures have caused blight in her community and that her neighborhood has many boarded up homes lost to big banks. She said her own experience with foreclosure had resulted in considerable strain with family members, and that she has been too ashamed to go to see her home since it foreclosed.
"Because my dad worked two full-time jobs all my childhood to be able to afford that house, and everyone knows how hard my dad worked," Richardson said. "And then to see it end up like this."
Among the protesters' key demands is for the banks to offer homeowners principal reductions on their mortgages. Consumer advocates and a wide range of economists have argued since the beginning of the foreclosure crisis that principal reductions on wildly overvalued mortgages are the only way to stop foreclosures and stabilize the housing market. Banks have ardently opposed the idea. Congress and the White House refused to tie bailout money for both banks or their servicers to principal reductions for homeowners.
"The only way we're going to put an end to the foreclosure crisis in this country is if the amounts that people owe on their loans actually resembles the amount that the properties are worth," said George Goehl, executive director of National People's Action, which organized Tuesday's protests with the Ohio Organizing Collaborative. "So principal reduction has to happen if we want to finally put an end to the foreclosure crisis."
National People's Action released a report last week detailing the extent and cost of foreclosures in three Ohio cities. The report estimated that nearly one out of every 10 homes in the study area have received a foreclosure filing since the onset of the national financial crisis in 2007. Forty percent of all homes lost to foreclosure in the three cities were repossessed by big banks, leading to increased vacancies in impacted neighborhoods and depleting the local tax base and property values. The report also found major disparities in foreclosure and lending practices in communities of color, when compared to majority white areas.
Goehl said that protesters are demanding a modernized Community Reinvestment Act--the decades-old law that forced banks to end "redlining" in neighborhoods of color. The new CRA would grade banks on their performance in terms of race, in order to hold them responsible if racial disparities appear in their lending practices. National People's Action found that JP Morgan Chase was more than twice as likely to sell high-cost, subprime loans to African American and Latino borrowers as they were to white borrowers from 2006 to 2009. Several studies have shown the same trend, even when controlling for income and credit ratings. NPA also found that mortgage lending dropped only 11 percent for white borrowers during its study period, but dropped 51 percent for African-American borrowers and 63 percent for Latinos, according to Home Mortgage Disclosure Act data.
The Columbus protest was one of a series of rallies held at shareholders' meetings across the country, as part of a campaign dubbed The New Bottom Line. The protests also coincide with ongoing negotiations between state attorney generals and big banks over a settlement regarding mortgage servicers' foreclosure practices.
JP Morgan Chase has the largest dollar amount of foreclosed home loans on its lending books, totaling $19.5 billion. It's mortgage servicing arm controls another $54.5 billion in loans that are in foreclosure. JP Morgan Chase is also one of the top lenders responsible for excesses in subprime loans. Last year, the bank was among several to temporarily halt foreclosures because they were found to be filing thousands of fraudulent documents each month in foreclosure proceedings, launching the attorney generals' investigation.
In response to questions about the protesters' complaints, a JP Morgan Chase spokesman said the bank has offered 1.1 million mortgage modifications to homeowners since the beginning of 2009. However, National People's Action reports that the bank has given permanent mortgage modifications to only 42 percent of its homeowners who are still eligible for the Obama administration's Home Affordable Modification Program, and has rejected almost as many families from HAMP as Bank of America and Wells Fargo combined.
*A previous version of this post incorrectly reported the number of protestors who testified.