Protests during the Democratic National Convention have paid off for at least one Charlotte family.
In September, Jessica Sanchez's parents were busy appealing a foreclosure on their home of 12 years by Bank of America. Protesters gathered outside the company's headquarters, in Uptown, to raise awareness of the case. The family had fallen behind on payments after Jessica's father, Gonzalo, was laid off early in 2011. Last week, the family found out that along with offering a $63,000 principal reduction on their mortgage, the Charlotte-based bank refinanced their interest rate and lowered their monthly interest payments by nearly $500. That means that 17-year-old Jessica, who uses a wheelchair because of complications from spina bifida, will be able to stay in a home that her parents have spent thousands of dollars retrofitting to accommodate her needs.
Family, friends and advocacy groups that have helped the Sanchezes all year, including Action NC and the Home Defender's League, gathered on Friday to celebrate. "It's been really good around here since we got the news," said Jessica.
The offer from Bank of America is a rare case, in which it used money set aside for the National Mortgage Settlement — often referred to as the "AG Settlement," named after the Attorneys General who fought for it — that requires the country's five leading mortgage providers, including BofA, to provide as much as $25 billion in relief to distressed borrowers. It's even more rare because the money is meant for those who have already lost their homes due to "bad-faith practices" mortgage providers used between January 2008 and December 2011. That's when lenders approved "predatory" loans that they knew could not be repaid and used illegal methods, including robo-signers, to quickly approve foreclosure documents.
The family's case gained national media attention after protesters staged a rally in front of the bank's Uptown headquarters during the Democratic National Convention. Action NC had been working with the family throughout the summer and hoped to use the national media's attention on Charlotte during the DNC to spotlight the Sanchez's cause. Because Bank of America did not have any legal incentive to give the family a principal reduction on their loan, it seems as though the decision was part of the bank folding to pressure brought on by the attention. Bank of America representatives did not respond to requests for comment on this story.
The family began receiving calls from BofA representatives four days after the protest. That's also when national advocacy organizations, such as the Neighborhood Assistance Corporation of America, began to help. The assistance group was able to bring the case to the attention of the Department of Justice, which suggested using money from the settlement. The group then acted as an intermediary between the bank, the Sanchez family and the Department of Justice.
Luis Rodriguez, an organizer with Action NC who worked with the Sanchez family throughout the summer, is hoping that more underwater mortgages can be fixed by using AG Settlement money and principal reduction. A mortgage is deemed "underwater" when the home-purchase loan has a higher balance than the home's value.
"The only way to solidify the middle class is to solidify the American dream by securing home ownership," Rodriguez said.
But Richard Buttimer, a finance professor at University of North Carolina Charlotte's Belk College of Business, suggests that the Sanchez family's case shouldn't be used as a precedent for doling out money from the National Mortgage Settlement.
"AG Settlement money is meant for people with whom the banks acted in bad faith," Buttimer said. "If you're now saying, 'Let's use this for something else,' that becomes nonsystematic."