Denver’s Foreclosure Auctions: Nothing to Joke About

It’s Thursday, March 8th, at 10 AM and another foreclosure auction is taking place at Denver’s Wellington-Webb City and County Building. A dozen houses are being sold to the highest bidder, sometimes for as little as one dollar over the lender’s minimum asking price.

Today the auction room is packed and the deputies scurry around, bringing in more chairs from surrounding rooms. Much of the overflow crowd consists of budding investors, brought together by a self -proclaimed expert in buying up “distressed” properties at auction. They observe the proceedings, then gather for lunch and hot tips at a local Italian restaurant.

Depending on your viewpoint, this is a gathering of carrion crows feasting on the dead remains of dreams, or it is a natural part of the growth and destruction that mark the inevitable boom and bust cycles of our economic system. Whatever your view, each house lost to foreclosure equals months of emotional pain and suffering for a family. A foreclosure auction is not the time or place for levity.

At our previous auction disruption and watches, we had observed, with growing discomfort, the practice of the Deputy Public Trustee who acts as auctioneer. The DPT, Tenaj Tannenbaum, makes jokes as she auctions off the houses, in order to, as she says, keep everyone from getting bored

So, the Foreclosure Working Group of the Colorado Progressive Coalition and Occupy Denver decided last week to bring this simple fact to the attention of the staff of the Denver Public Trustee’s Office. The massive foreclosure process rumbles on with earth-mover-like inevitability, and we have little hope of sidetracking it or of preventing more than a fraction of the foreclosures. But we can attempt to emphasize the seriousness of the proceedings.

Tennenbaum begins this auction with a her usual recital of “interesting” historical facts, then launches into a funny story, “A kidney stone walked into a bar ….

The buyers, most of them regular participants in the auction, laugh.

A voice from the back of the auction room: ” Madame Auctioneer, a foreclosure auction is not the place for jokes. People have lost their homes, they are suffering ….” His voice is drowned out by officials yelling at him to leave the room. One of the uniformed policemen against the wall hauls out a video camera and begins video-taping the entire incident.

The man, who has volunteered to speak out this week if Tennenbaum continues to joke, walks up the center aisle; well-dressed, very middle class, with the embroidered yarmulke of an observant Jew resting on his gray hair. He manages to speak a few more sentences about the destruction of homes and families and neighborhoods as he reaches the door, then sings a few bars of the auction-disruption song, “Listen, auctioneer, all the people here, Are asking you to stop all the ….”

Stop what? Stop all the jokes, right now. At least.

Tannenbaum remarks that there is now an open seat in the back of the room.

A few more properties are auctioned off, then she swings into some statistics on the continental divide, noting that the “incontinental divide” happens every time you cross the diaper aisle in the supermarket. This time there are fewer laughs.

Why make a big point about a few “harmless” jokes at a foreclosure auction?

Let’s look at practices of many indigenous peoples when they slaughter an animal that will provide them with food as well as with materials for clothing and shelter. Before the hunt and over the carcass they ask forgiveness from the spirit of the animal. It is a serious occasion and they acknowledge the dependence of humans on the animal. Without that food, they would die.

In our system, the families foreclosed upon are the hunted. They were lured by predatory lenders into buying houses at increasingly inflated prices and into taking out loans that they often could not afford to pay back. These lenders had no intention of holding on to the loans and, frankly, had no interest in whether or not the borrowers would ever pay them back. They made tons of money on up-front fees and commissions.

The often shaky loans were then sold to other financial institutions, again resulting in millions of dollars in fees and commissions for the sellers.

The loans were then bundled together, sliced up and resold as Mortgage Backed Securities (MBS), often AAA rated. Again, bankers made tons of money negotiating these deals, and Rumpelstiltskin-like rating agencies collected huge fees from turning trash into gold.

Insurance companies, notably AIG, made additional tons of money selling Credit Default Swaps (CDS), a private, totally unregulated insurance product, to financial institutions so that they could protect themselves in the event the MBS stuff ever went sour. AIG neglected to set aside sufficient money to cover their costs in the, in their estimation, unlikely event that they should ever have to pay out on this “insurance.”

The mortgage lending and financial industries made billions. Angelo Mozilo, CEO of Countrywide, one of the most egregious pushers of sub-prime mortgages, took home $68.95 million dollars during the peak five years of the lending boom. Then Bank of America CEO Ken Lewis took home $24.8 million dollars in 2008 alone.

When the bubble burst, the government had to prop up AIG to the tune of billions because AIG could not pay out the claims on their CDS’s. The government had to pump billions of dollars into the investment banks.

But nobody bailed out the prey, the victims, who together had provided trillions of dollars in salaries and bonuses for the bankers and lenders. Quite a bit of food and shelter there. They were left to die slowly and painfully. A lost job here, stress-related medical bills there, watching the value of their home plummet. Then a missed mortgage payment, or maybe they couldn’t scrape together enough cash to pay the home-owner’s insurance. And then the notice from the Public Trustee’s Office that their houses would be auctioned off in 120 days. Finally, the long drawn-out agony of despair and shame and eviction.

Indigenous peoples who live close to and depend upon the natural world for their existence take the hunter-prey relationship seriously. If it is a necessary part of life, they kill quickly and mercifully. They don’t torture. They revere and celebrate the strength, speed and cunning of the prey.

Our more civilized system encourages us to prolong the suffering of those people whose missteps made fortunes for the hunters. They don’t get government bailouts. Often, they are kept on tenterhooks while lenders and servicers and government agencies tease them with possibilities of refinancing or of loan modifications. In the meantime, society demeans them as stupid, lazy and dishonest deadbeats.

I mentioned above that today’s auction protester wore a yarmulke, or, in Hebrew, a kippah. It is to be worn while praying and while eating, an acknowledgement that God is above and watching. Wearing a kippah is an important statement and obligates the wearer to live up to a certain standard of behavior.

And so his protest is more than just an objection to an auctioneer making jokes. It is a cry for justice, a call for compassion, a statement that the victims of foreclosure deserve a seriousness of demeanor at an event that marks their death throes. It is a prayer over the ravaged corpses that fed our financial boom.

We can’t immediately change a system that grinds some people into dust so that other people can make fortunes, but we can begin to change how we regard the system. It’s ugly, it’s unethical, it doesn’t have to be this way.

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