- The Washington Times - Sunday, October 5, 2008

For every “greedy” Wall Street banker, there were millions of Main Street Americans willing to live beyond their means.

And for every predatory lender, there were stupendously more home buyers willing to suspend fiscal reality for mortgages they didn’t understand, couldn’t afford, or in many cases, didn’t even bother to read.

From the California congresswoman who defaulted on several mortgages to credit-card holders with sky-high debt and escalating interest rates, financial experts, lawmakers and average citizens say the behavior of Americans is as much to blame for the nation’s financial crises as was the lax oversight by Congress and manipulation by the nation´s financial movers and shakers.

David Jones, president of the Association of Independent Consumer Credit Counseling Agencies, places much of the blame directly on the borrowers.

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“They are the ones who signed those contracts and should have known what could happen. They think the government should let them stay in their homes or force the lender to alter loans to make less money.

“They call the [original mortgage] deal usurious,” he said. “Certainly, most responsible people in this country would disagree with that.”

The delinquency rate for home-mortgage loans hit 6.41 percent of all loans outstanding at the end of the second quarter of 2008, a historic high in the Mortgage Bankers Association survey.

The survey showed the rate of foreclosure starts varied by loan types from a low of 0.34 percent for fixed-rate loans to 6.63 percent for subprime adjustable-rate mortgages, or ARMs, that let borrowers purchase pricey homes with low interest rates that later inflate.

“We’re seeing a disavowal of individual responsibility,” said Hunt Burke, president of the Burke & Herbert Bank & Trust Co. in Alexandria.

“People want to blame Wall Street ‘fat cats’ when their 401(k), which they elected to load up with stocks, takes a tumble because stocks are nose-diving. Instead of accepting responsibility for taking risks with their 401(k), people are saying all of a sudden that the ‘fat cats’ are the villains and the entire economy is at fault.”

But what’s being lost is the money made when those funds were paying well.

“When my 401(k) was earning 20 percent, I wasn’t complaining about fat cats on Wall Street,” Mr. Burke said. “But those same fat cats are running things now, and now they’re scapegoats.”

Mr. Burke says his medium-sized bank has assets of about $1.6 billion and is “awash with liquidity” and eager to make loans to qualified borrowers.

Rep. Laura Richardson, California Democrat, could be a poster child for America’s culture of overreaching in the housing market.

Less than eight months after being sworn in to Congress last year, she found herself in foreclosure trouble. Her $535,000 home in Sacramento was sold at auction after she reportedly missed nearly a year’s worth of mortgage payments, and she defaulted on loans for two other houses she owned in Long Beach and San Pedro.

Mrs. Richardson, 46, bought the Sacramento house with a subprime mortgage in 2007 in the midst of her a meteoric one-year rise from a Long Beach City Council member to a state assemblywoman to a congresswoman. She said her house was mistakenly auctioned after she renegotiated the loan with Washington Mutual Bank, which later rescinded the auction sale.

But there were more problems. She managed to default at least eight times on her three home loans since 2004 and failed to pay bills owed to an automotive mechanic and a printing shop until reporters began inquiring about the debts, the Daily Breeze newspaper in Torrance, Calif., reported.

The lawmaker acknowledged her “personal housing crisis” when news of her debt troubles broke in May. She said she shared with constituents “the anguish that the housing industry is in a severe crisis.” But she pointed to extenuating circumstances to explain her troubles.

“Due to multiple job changes, divorce, illness/death, and nine campaigns over the last 10 years, these major life-changing moments have come at great personal expense and at challenging financial strain,” she said.

Mrs. Richardson, who Friday voted in favor of the $700 billion bailout of credit markets drained by rampant foreclosures, declined to answer questions last week about how her housing misfortune affected her outlook on the country’s economic crisis.

Among the provisions added to protect homeowners is a directive to federal agencies to identify loans that could be changed without big losses to the taxpayers. The new law also encourages servicers to refinance loans through the new Hope for Homeownership program, which lets borrowers refinance their mortgages using more affordable, fixed-rate loans backed by the Federal Housing Administration.

While Democrats teed up another round of attacks on Bush economic failures after Friday’s passage of the bailout, voters rallied to Republican vice-presidential nominee Gov. Sarah Palin’s call for personal responsibility for the country’s money woes - though she also blasted “predator lenders” for convincing borrowers to buy homes they couldn’t afford.

“We need also to not get ourselves in debt,” Mrs. Palin said at the vice-presidential debate Thursday.

“Let’s do what our parents told us before we probably even got that first credit card: Don’t live outside of our means,” she said. “We need to make sure that as individuals we’re taking personal responsibility through all this. It’s not the American people’s fault that the economy is hurting like it is, but we have an opportunity to learn a heck of a lot of good lessons through this and say never again will we be taken advantage of.”

Several voters in Missouri favorably cited the responsibility comments when asked about the vice-presidential debate.

One St. Louis Democrat recently laid off from her job said the remark was the only portion of Mrs. Palin’s performance she liked. The woman said she heartily agreed that too many Americans purchased more home than they could afford and are too willing to file bankruptcy when things go south.

Gerald Siscoe, selling holiday decorations at a craft fair in Hatton, Mo., on Friday, also noted that lenders do not deserve all the blame for the Wall Street mess.

“The American people should be smart enough to know that money only goes so far,” he said. “People were silly to think they could afford those houses, but the lending institutions pushed them in that direction. I guess you could say they were given the opportunity to be at fault.”

A bright spot in the credit crisis, perhaps, is the end of exotic mortgage deals that pumped up the housing bubble with “liar loans” requiring no documentation of income and no-money-down loans that put cash-poor borrowers in homes for nothing but a signature.

Suddenly back in vogue are the government-backed FHA loans that always required full documentation of income, verification of employment and a down payment of at least 3 percent of the property value.

FHA loans accounted for less than 4 percent of U.S. home mortgages written in fiscal 2006 and just above 4 percent last year. In fiscal 2008, which ended Sept. 30, the market share for FHA loans jumped to more than 13 percent, according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD).

“We all of a sudden are the good guys again,” HUD spokesman Lemar Wooley said. “We’re the new shining knight in town”

Christina Bellantoni contributed to this report.