IN 2008, CITI was among the banking walruses whose incompetence and avarice plunged them into a mine shaft from which it took billions of taxpayer dollars to rescue them.
Once saved, you might think the financial geniuses would show a little gratitude to their rescuers and help those having trouble meeting their mortgages.
Along with you and me, one of the taxpayers who helped save Citi's sorry carcass was William Whiting, 60, who was scheduled to sit down this afternoon for a conciliation conference, known in Philadelphia as the Mortgage Foreclosure Diversion Program.
Launched in 2008, Philadelphia's justly praised program, headed by Judge Annette Rizzo, brings together borrower and lender to play a version of "Let's Make a Deal" in which you have two winners and no losers.
The conciliation meeting is mandatory for any owner-occupied foreclosure that comes into the court system, Rizzo told me. The goal, she said, is "to preserve home-ownership and stabilize communities."
There have been more than 13,000 conferences, resulting in "saving between 2,500 and 3,000 homes outright and there are 3,500 to 4,000 in queue," says Rizzo.
Today, 110 cases will be heard in the morning and another 110 in the afternoon. Borrower and lender, and attorneys, work to fashion a deal under the eye of deputized "judges" who make recommendations to the court. Statistics show that when the "judges" (usually volunteer senior members of the local bar) talk, the court listens.
Whiting and Citi will be using Philadelphia lawyers at conciliation, for which Citi was granted a postponement late yesterday afternoon.
In 1996, Whiting bought his house, which he had been renting since 1983, for $75,000. In 2004, he refinanced it for $199,000, mostly to pay off business and credit-card debt. He had a decent job and expected his income to continue.
Last year, like many Americans, he lost his job and the roof started caving in. "I'd anticipated better years that never quite arrived as planned," he deadpans.
Whiting says Citi made promises it didn't keep. His attorney is Natalie Klyashtorny of Nochumson P.C., which specializes in fighting financial institutions. At the least, Klyashtorny blames "a lot of missed communication and misunderstanding" and Citi employees not properly trained, nor held responsible for what they say.
Back in February, Citi agreed to temporarily reduce the mortgage on Whiting's Center City trinity from a too-heavy $1,300 a month to a manageable $815 while it processed his application for a permanent reduction. The paperwork promised an answer in 30 to 45 days. It took eight months. Whiting made every payment, yet still was harassed by phone by Citi, even after he told them he had an attorney and Citi needed to contact her.
Citi Director of Public Affairs Mark Rodgers told me the bank can't comment due to "privacy" restrictions, but "we will continue to work with this borrower to explore potential solutions."
My solution? Make permanent Whiting's lower monthly payment and extend the length of the loan. Whiting keeps his house, Citi eventually gets all its money back. But if conciliation, reschedeuled for Feb. 3, takes a bad bounce, Whiting could be out in the cold, along with Winnie, his pet Jack Russell terrier. Who wins if that happens?
When the banks were rescued by the taxpayers' billions, we were told the banks would stabilize themselves and send money back into the market to stoke the economy. That hasn't happened enough.
Millions of Americans, most through no fault of their own, are facing foreclosure. Giant banks, whose top big shots haven't missed a meal or a round of golf, are turning their backs on the very taxpayers who rescued them.
Yes, that's a simplification. So is the Golden Rule.
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