Bruce Marks only half-jokingly calls himself a nonviolent bank terrorist. Last winter, Marks, who heads up the Neighborhood Assistance Corporation of America, led several hundred people down the driveway and up to the mansion in Westchester County, N.Y., where Morgan Stanley CEO John Mack lives.
The crowd chanted: "Save our homes, save our homes."
"It's so outrageous," Marks said. "While Americans [are] losing their homes by the millions, he's living here in this beautiful house."
Marks has protested plenty of other executives he says aren't doing enough to avoid foreclosures. He's even posted their photos and home phone numbers on his Web site. Morgan Stanley said it's working with Marks' group.
For Marks, it's not just about the bullhorns. For two decades, he's run a nonprofit that makes home loans affordable. And over the past year, he's doubled his staff — it now includes 1,200 employees nationwide. Lately, the group has been running a nationwide foreclosure help tour, and it has managed to lower loan payments for nearly 100,000 homeowners.
NPR caught up with Marks when the tour stopped in San Francisco. Marks calls it the "Save the Dream Tour." At each stop, NACA rents out a stadium for several days, and a ton of people show up. More than 50,000 people showed up to the event in Los Angeles, and more than 40,000 came to events in Las Vegas and Phoenix.
In San Francisco, housing counselors were set up at hundreds of tables across the floor of the stadium. Homeowners were told to bring their loan documents, W-2's and other paperwork. Also attending: representatives of major banks and loan-servicing companies that Marks has pressured to cooperate.
And, Marks says, his group has been able to renegotiate loans and get payments lowered for more than 90,000 homeowners over the past year.
Bernice Jackson, 62, of Los Angeles drove hundreds of miles to attend NACA events in Las Vegas and San Francisco. Jackson's husband is retired, and they're on a fixed income. She says a mortgage broker lied to them, and she got into a loan that she couldn't afford.
"Oh, man. I had a very high interest rate, and through NACA and the help of the servicers, I got the note reduced to 2 percent," she says. "So my note went from almost $4,000 a month to $1,600 a month. Yes, I'm very excited, very happy."
That may sound too good to be true. But Marks' group pushes the banks to try to lower the payment to one the homeowner can really afford. And that can make sense for the banks or the investors who own the loans.
One big-time investor showed up at the San Francisco event. "Yeah, it's actually pretty unbelievable," says Scott Simon, a managing director for Pimco, an investment firm that manages about $200 billion in mortgage-backed securities. "[I] wanted to come see what they're doing and how they're doing it. And it's pretty impressive."
Simon is one of the biggest mortgage investors in the world. And here he is standing in the midst of thousands of people looking to pay investors like him less money. And he thinks that's a good idea. In fact, he'd actually like to see more people getting their principal — the amount they owe on a home loan — reduced.
Simon says too many people are upside-down — owing way more than their house is worth. And they don't have much incentive to keep their house.
"Well, I think that is right because you're going to potentially have 7 million people going into foreclosure unless they're helped over the next three years," he says. "So you're talking about 10 percent of households. You know, foreclosure is almost always the absolute worst thing that can happen — bad for the homeowners, bad for the neighborhood; it's bad for the investors [and] it's bad for the system."
Simon would like to see more workouts where investors like him forgive a chunk of principal so the loan can be refinanced at a market rate and the borrower isn't upside-down.
Other investors have resisted these efforts. They think too many homeowners won't make even the lower payments, so they'll get foreclosed on anyway. But Marks estimates that about 75 percent of the homeowners who get a loan modification from NACA will keep making their payments.