"Why would they do this to me? I have so little."
That plaintive question was asked by an elderly North Philadelphia woman who is among thousands of low-income homeowners victimized in recent years by predatory lenders peddling high-interest, "subprime" loans, according to a study released yesterday.
At the time of the study, the woman, who started out borrowing for home improvements, hadn't lost her home to foreclosure, but interest payments had become so high she had no equity left in the property.
Many of the victims of the costly loans never set out to borrow at all but were targeted and harassed by predatory lenders urging them to use their properties as collateral to refinance, said Ira Goldstein, of the Reinvestment Fund, author of the study.
The Reinvestment Fund is a local agency that lends money to establish affordable housing, small businesses and charter schools in low-income neighborhoods.
The study analyzed mortgage and sale histories of 15,500 properties in Philadelphia from 2000 to 2003.
It found that one in every 30 Philadelphia homeowners has been been targeted by predatory lending and that the probability of becoming a victim increased to one in seven for those who have refinanced their mortgages multiple times.
The majority of victims of the costly loans - arranged by predatory lenders for people with low incomes or poor credit histories - came from predominantly African-American or Latino neighborhoods, according to the study.
Foreclosures also have occurred "very heavily" in black or Latino neighborhoods, said Goldstein, director of public policy and information services for the Reinvestment Fund.
The problem is a national one and in Washington, D.C., yesterday, civil-rights groups sought a six-month moratorium on foreclosures resulting from high-risk loans given to people with shaky credit, arguing that lenders should help borrowers refinance their mortgages or face lawsuits.
According to the report, one broker said he had gone to a Web site that allows brokers to enter any desired characteristic, from age, sex and income to the likelihood of homeownership or living alone, and then to obtain lists of names "for pennies a name."
"People are approached who are not looking to borrow money, and they're hounded, in some instances relentlessly," Goldstein said."
"If they are looking for money, they're looking maybe for $2,000 to $5,000 or $6,000," but may end up with loans for as much as $50,000, he said.