Foreclosure Protest Causes Harborside Bank of America Branch to Close EarlyBy Matt Hunger • Jan 28th, 2013 • Category: Featured, News
The Bank of America branch at Jersey City’s Harborside Financial Center closed early Thursday due to “circumstances beyond [their] control,” according to the sign posted on the glass doors where a guard and branch rep stood to watch what had brought about the closure: about 50 demonstrators marching and chanting in support of Newark resident Grace Alexander, who is at risk of losing her home of 12 years to foreclosure.
The group of protesters included fellow homeowners, Service Employees International Union members and local politicians. The action was both in support of Alexander, 57, who is struggling to make her mortgage payments, and the many other homeowners in the same position, said Trina Scordo, the executive director of New Jersey Communities United, an advocacy group shouldering much of the protest movement statewide.
“People asked us why we’re at this branch and not any other,” Scordo said through a bullhorn as she stood in the sub-freezing temperatures just steps away from the Exchange Place PATH station. She noted that this wasn’t the branch that Alexander says refused to renegotiate the terms of her adjustable-rate mortgage after she lost two of her three jobs.
It’s because this happens all over, Scordo said. And so far, she said no bank representative would speak with the group, here or anywhere else.
With picket signs and handheld signs, chants and songs, the gathered circled to demand that Bank of America “bank for America.” Or as one sign put it, “bail out the people. And if Alexander stood in for so many other struggling homeowners, then Bank of America could have been any of the other banks accused of wrongly luring in would-be homeowners with teaser mortgage rates and other incentives.
It was the government’s unjust response that didn’t satisfy Assemblyman Sean Connors, who said the federal bailout left banks flush with money they are slow to lend out, which “put the financial institutions first, not the people.”
Alexander, who bought her home in 2000, said she was once able to make her payments thanks to the three jobs she held. But when she lost two of those jobs, the low interest rate of her mortgage was raised at the worst possible time.
The blame for the mortgage mess falls squarely on “recklessness of the too big to fail banks,” said demonstrator David Hungerford — not the homeowners who were attracted by the possibility of finally owning a home. “They caused this financial downturn, they rigged the market,” he said.
While the banks often point out it takes two to agree to the terms of a mortgage, and defaulting homeowners need to shoulder some of the blame for purchasing homes beyond their means, as so many critics like Hungerford point out, some bankers pushed loans they often suspected could not be repaid.
Or as Alexander said, a fixed-rate mortgage, which would have made her expenses easier to calculate, “wasn’t available to me.”
At-Large Councilwoman Viola Richardson said at the protest that it’s this kind of “predatory lending” that has given new legs to Richardson’s push to have the city divest its money from Bank of America. “They left the HUB despite the city offering to put its money there” in order to bolster the branch’s business, she said, but that wasn’t enough. “They never gave us a good answer why,” she said.
Although no representative spoke with the assembled on Thursday, Bank of America spokesman T.J. Crawford said the bank is “always willing to meet with representatives from the city.” Just not when they’re accompanied by 50 other people. “It would have created a safety hazard in the bank,” he said.
Crawford, who called the HUB branch closing a “business decision,” wouldn’t speculate on the consequences of the city following through on Richardson’s push, which has gained traction recently. Already Ward E Councilman Steve Fulop, who also attended the protest, said he was in support of Richardson’s proposal, adding that he was joining Newark Councilman Ronald Rice in calling for hearings on banks’ foreclosure practices.
But whether the city takes action remains to be seen. Previously, Business Administrator Jack Kelly had outlined the challenges to changing banks, including a possible lag in when employees could get paid.
For David Stump, one of the leaders of the protest and a member of moveon.org, the words of politicians only go so far. “We’ll continue to push for changes to city banking practices,” he said. “We’re starting a movement to have people change where they keep their money. We should all move our money out of the too big to fail banks to local banks and credit unions.”
The protest, which Crawford called an “isolated incident,” should not be blown out of proportion, he said, adding that the bank is trying to work with Alexander. “Foreclosure is always our last resort,” he said.
While Crawford said both their customers and their relationship with Jersey City is “important” to the bank, Alexander said she was made to feel like a “nobody” by what she described as the bank’s lack of flexibility and refusal to meet with her on Thursday.
The problem of foreclosures is well known in New Jersey, said Mayor Jerramiah Healy, who noted the state is only behind Florida in foreclosure rates. “We’re asking banks to review mortgage terms so homeowners can stay in homes,” he said, adding, that “when people are kicked out of their homes it hurts a neighborhood, a community, the city, and even the banks.”
Richardson, who called housing a “human right,” said this wasn’t the first time the city has had BoA turn their back on elected officials, recalling the closing of the bank’s branch at the MLK HUB. “They don’t want to stay in an area where there are poor people,” she said.
But this is part of a national “trending down” movement for banks, says Crawford, a move further evidenced by Capital One’s decision to close down one of its branches in the city.
If this continues, it won’t take Stump’s call to action for people to be forced to move money from a national bank to a local bank: it’ll be the only banking option available in some places. That is, unless cash-checking businesses get there first, as is often the case.
Photos by Matt Hunger
Like what you've read here? Please consider making a donation or becoming a sustaining member. As a grassroots news organization, we rely on community support -- as well as paid advertising -- to survive.