In it for the Money: Occupation

We could all use some good neighbors

Editor’s note: This column appears regularly in The Chronicle, roughly around the third Wednesday of the month. 

David Erik Nelson Column

David Erik Nelson

Listen: Bank of America is a shitty neighbor.

To clarify, I have no beef with any specific retail banking location. The folks on Main Street (where I tread water on my mortgage each month) seem like basically good folks serving their clients in good faith. I have no gripe with them. I don’t even really have much of a gripe with Bank of America as an institution [1].

But I live next door to a house owned by Bank of America, and they are the worst neighbors I’ve ever had.

The previous owner, Mike, was a good guy; he occasionally had loud parties, but we were always invited and the food was great. Then, an hour or so after daylight savings time began in March of 2008, he was killed on the job while towing a drunk up out of a ditch along the side of an on-ramp. He had been single and had no will, so his house swiftly defaulted to the lender, Countrywide Financial (at that time the largest mortgage packager in the United States). Soon thereafter Countrywide collapsed, and the house was transferred to Bank of America [2].

More than three years later, that house is still empty.

Neighbors: Mike compared to Bank of America

As I said before, Mike had been a good (if slightly kooky) neighbor. He’d helped me cut the paneling when I refinished my basement, and often shoveled the sidewalk for us the first winter after my son was born. He’d lent me live traps and tools – heck, the fluorescent light fixture in my tool room had been Mike’s, and the spare refrigerator now mouldering in his basement is from my kitchen. Mike kept his lawn tidy, his brick in good repair, his trim painted.

The new neighbors, Bank of America, show no such interest in their investment. They rarely mow (although they’ve had a string of shady contractors “managing” the property, who each show up once to indifferently run a riding mower over everything, but never come back to repair the downspouts, or clean the gutters, or mend the fence). They don’t rake. They don’t shovel the sidewalk. They ignored the city’s notices about the broken sidewalk slabs for two years, until the city sent in its own crew a few months back (the expense, I’m told, will be tacked on to their property taxes, which Bank of America – still in the guise of Countrywide – keeps current, according to county records).

And yet the house doesn’t collapse. Who shovels Bank of America’s snow? We do. (I alternate with a firefighter who lives across the street.) Who hauled away the tree that fell in Bank of America’s yard? We did. Who called DTE when scrappers stole the exposed copper gas line off the back of the house, despite that line still being live? We did. We gently broke into Bank of America’s house so that DTE could enter and shut off the gas before there was an explosion. We locked up when we were done. Who mends the fence in order to deter future scrappers? We do. Who broke into the house again that winter to drain the pipes when Bank of America and their nominal contractors proved unwilling to winterize a now unheatable house? We did.

But there are only so many hours and dollars we can invest in maintaing the Bank of America’s house. There are saplings taking root in the gutters, there is an ever-growing population of cats under the deck and vicious red squirrels in the attic. I noticed yesterday that, beneath the healthy bed of moss on the roof, many shingles are beginning to peel back. Maybe not this winter, maybe not even next, but soon water will be coming into the attic, and that’s the beginning of the end.

Paying Taxes versus Being a Neighbor

Most galling: Bank of America has never put this house on the market. I live in Ann Arbor, in a residential neighborhood a block off of Washtenaw; when we bought in 2003 it was rare for a house to spend more than a couple months on the market here. In fact, there’s buyer interest in this house right now (even in its advancing state of disrepair). I know because passers-by ask me about it. They leave notes taped to the door indicating they’d like to make an offer on the house. At least one prospective buyer called Bank of America, as well as the lawyer and contractors nominally handling the property locally, and never received any response. Bank of America has never even placed a “FOR SALE BY OWNER” sign in the lawn.

I’ll grant that there’s an argument to be made that runs along these lines: “Hey, why are you picking on Bank of America? They pay their property taxes, just like everyone else; what do you care who lives there or what they do? Isn’t a quiet, empty place better than loud drunks?”

And I can see where you’re coming from, Imaginary Interlocutor: I have other neighbors whose sidewalk I regularly shovel, or who show lapses in the care of their trim. But I don’t begrudge them the hours and dollars I spend for their benefit because, at the very least, it is mutual. They loan me baking powder and eggs, they stick their heads out the door to see what I’m yelling about as I attempt to get a squirrel out of my attic, they move UPS deliveries onto the dry part of my porch when it’s raining. Yes, we all – me and the elderly Eastern Europeans and the other young families, even Bank of America – we all pay money into the system, but the money isn’t even half of one’s vital contribution to his or her community.

The neighboring itself is far more valuable than the damn money. When my neighbors see some man they don’t recognizing talking to my boy at the bus stop, they come over and make sure everything is OK. Bank of America doesn’t do a damn thing. All the rest of us, we real and breathing humans, share more and thus can live on less (which, in a gloomy economy, means a lot).

Meanwhile, Bank of America mooches off of our goodwill in order to maintain an investment on which, if all goes well, they’ll eventually turn a tidy profit. Or, alternately, which they’ll let rot and write down as a smaller loss. Heck, if they’re really lucky, someone will burn it down, and they’ll collect the full value of the insurance. And if our house should catch on fire, too? I don’t see why they’d care; such an externality doesn’t show on their balance sheet, and Bank of America Home Loans is headquartered 2,200 miles away in Calabasas, Calif. I doubt they see us as neighbors at all.

Occupying Wall Street, Ann Arbor

Since some folks started Occupying a lil slice of Wall Street two months ago, there’s been a fair bit of frustrated grumbling (both in the media and in general) that this movement lacks tweetable demands or a clear, photogenic mainstream-media mouthpiece.

But listing demands and ticking off talking points is sort of antithetical to good neighboring. If our neighbor is a loud party guy, we don’t write “DOWN WITH LOUD PARTIES! UP WITH COOKIES AND MILK!” and march in his lawn. We chat – as neighbors do – and maybe happen to mention that our baby’s window is on the side of the house closest to his fenced party patio. I’d like to argue that these Occupations are about being radically good neighbors, and good neighbors don’t demand things from each other, they show things to each other, and do things for each other.

What’s Occupy Wall St. doing for us? First off, it’s Occupying Wall Street – which is nice, because Wall Street has been occupying my neighborhood for three years, and we’re no better off for it. Indications are strong that the Occupy Camps are being pretty good neighbors. Up until their eviction early Tuesday morning, Occupy Wall St. was cleaning Zuccotti Park daily – at no cost to New York City or the actual property holders. They were feeding their people and the indigents who happened through, and even maintaining a 5,000 volume lending library.

I can say with confidence that Occupy Ann Arbor (which enjoys the tacit support of the mayor’s office, the Ann Arbor city council, and parks & recreation services) has been keeping Liberty Plaza tidier than the norm. Occupier David Sincere Nobleman indicates that they clean the park nightly. And they are gathering supplies and support to build and staff warming shelters for the homeless as the weather turns. Their presence in Liberty Plaza is reducing stress on the city government and picking up slack in our own mutual caretakership.

What’s Occupy showing us? According to First Ward councilmember Sabra Briere (reached over email) “The Mayor, the Chief of Police, the City Administrator – and members of Council – have met with the demonstrators, acknowledged the problems of having them camp (unauthorized) in a City park, and agreed that, as long as the demonstrators act within the law, the City won’t try to move them. … The protestors locally are raising awareness of some serious issues for those with the least financial capacity (the homeless and the unemployed, for instance).”

I find this final point striking. About a year ago I was in St. Louis with my wife and young son, visiting friends. After going to the Gateway Arch (which I was basically alone in being excited to see), we cruised down along the Mississippi River, attracted by the art adorning the concrete storm walls. Wandering upriver, we passed into a half-abandoned industrial strip, then found ourselves in a small tent city.

Now, as a man with poor foresight, I’ve stumbled into more than my fair share of homeless encampments and hobo jungles. In my experience these sorts of camps tend to be cunningly patched together from improvised supplies, and very often house folks who have chosen to eschew the organized shelter system (either because of their own mental states, or because such shelters often have strict rules about being under the influence of any substance harder than instant coffee and Basic filter-tips).

But this camp wasn’t what I’d seen before; this little village was composed of family-size dome tents with hibachis and camp stoves and folding camp chairs. There were as many late-model sedans and SUVs as there were tents. The folks there weren’t dressed in Salvation Army hodgepodge, weren’t looking for charity, and didn’t want to talk. This was a middle-class homeless camp. They had jobs, they had families, they had gear and supplies, but they didn’t have houses any more, and they didn’t want anyone to know.

This is what Occupy puts in front of America: An increasing number of middle-class Americans are finding themselves obliged to tent it on borrowed land, and they’re ashamed, and they are hiding off along the edges. By Occupying, these protestors bring to our city centers the thing that’s been gathering on the periphery, a vision not of What’s Coming, but What’s Already Here. [3]

But hell, why should any Americans sleep in shameful industrial-zone tent towns? I’ve got a perfectly good house right next to mine; it’s sitting empty, and we could use some good neighbors.

[1] My Better Portion would be apoplectic if I failed to mention my one beef with Bank of America. After they assumed our mortgage, I spent 18 months attempting to convince Bank of America that I did indeed have homeowner’s insurance. Every few months they would inform me that they believed I did not have any insurance, and if I didn’t get some ASAP, they were going to buy it themselves at an exorbitant rate, and stick me with the bill. I’d then blow an hour or so on the phone with a very sympathetic customer service rep, or bike down to the Main Street Bank of America branch, where databases would be updated and copies of dec sheets faxed and everything fixed and everyone very sincerely sorry for any inconvenience I may have possibly been under the impression I’d suffered. Nonetheless, two months later an automated process deep within the Bank of America network would reiterate its threat, and we’d start all over again. This was only resolved when I finally stopped talking to Bank of America altogether, and instead complained to the insurance company. A very nice bottom-tier customer service rep there then called a very nice bottom-tier spear carrier at Bank of America, put us all on speaker phone, and we sorted it out together, a bizarre 99%-er conference call of powerless individuals in little windowless rooms struggling to keep the economic megafauna of early 21st Century American life from inadvertently treading me beneath their lumbering gait.

[2] Just as our mortgage had been – which is how I ended up doing business with Bank of America against my will; they were, in fact, the third institution to hold our debt. No one seemed to care what I thought about any of this.

[3] Jay Smooth is an established radio and video reporter in New York; his read on what Occupy’s Messageless Message means is different than mine, and well worth the watch: “Occupy Wall Street: Outing the Ringers

FOLLOW-UP: Concerned readers of my last column will be happy to learn that my five-year-old can indeed see colors! Dr. Jonathan Trobe of University of Michigan’s Kellogg Eye Center was kind enough to donate his time and expertise in giving my boy a full eye exam. Thank you, Dr. Trobe!

About the author: David Erik Nelson has written columns previously for The Chronicle on topics like medical marijuana and glass-eating clowns. Nelson is the author of various books, including most recently, “Snip, Burn, Solder, Shred“.

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  1. By Rod Johnson
    November 16, 2011 at 12:44 pm | permalink

    Terrific article. This deserves much wider exposure.

  2. By Dave
    November 16, 2011 at 2:23 pm | permalink

    Wow! I’m sure glad you have brought your fresh writing skills to the Ann Arbor media scene. Doesn’t surprise me that Mary and Dave gave you that chance. Bravo for a well thought out, from the heart, easy to relate to, enjoyable column. I just kept shaking my head while reading, in agreement. Will look forward to more from you in the future.

  3. November 16, 2011 at 2:36 pm | permalink

    My first reaction was indignation at B of A’s evil behavior, but then I started thinking community standards. The situation described is a public safety hazard, as well as a threat to neighborhood integrity. Abandoned houses are sometimes used for drug dealing and other nefarious uses (but these conscientious neighbors would probably spot that) and there is a possible fire hazard, among other things.

    Doesn’t the City of Ann Arbor have an interest in seeing that such houses are maintained? Ypsilanti Township has been suing some mortgage holders over egregious conditions in some abandoned houses. Do we have any city department that should be tracking these situations?

    Years ago I helped a constituent track down help with a neighborhood problem in which a house was inhabited, but allowed to deteriorate (it had an elderly person in it, had flooded, black mold, garbage in yard, etc.). The Housing department of the city we had then had inspectors and links to social service agencies, etc. I’m not sure whether a dwelling without an inhabitant would have been of interest to them.

  4. By Rod Johnson
    November 16, 2011 at 3:01 pm | permalink

    I know Ypsi Township is currently dealing with a plague of these houses. Abandoned houses don’t last long without some care, but even getting in touch with the deed holders is nearly impossible sometimes, and the cost and complexity for the city to deal with cases like this are enormous. And there are a lot of cases like this.

  5. By Eliana Moya-Raggio
    November 16, 2011 at 3:17 pm | permalink

    Congratulations, David, it’s a great article.
    I had a disastrous experience with Bank of America and promised myself
    to never have anything to do with them.
    It is especially nice to hear your voice again.

  6. By Mark Koroi
    November 16, 2011 at 5:07 pm | permalink

    State law requires the owner of structures to maintain them in a safe condition. Bank of America has legal title via their foreclosure. Their should be rigorous enforcement at the local level from inspectors as to this property.

    I know someone who had similar beefs with a lender failing to properly administer a mortgage loan and he filed grievances with the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency who investigated by contacting the executive offices of the bank and that “got the lead out”. The Office of the Comptroller of the Currency is the regulatory body for national banks.

    I have seen my share of bad administration of mortgage loans by banks. The authorities need to crack down.

  7. By Mark Koroi
    November 16, 2011 at 5:27 pm | permalink

    I would also state that I agree with Mr. Johnson’s comment above that this story should receive wider exposure because it is a microcosm of what has occurred nationally by way of bank behavior: total irresponsibility by the lending institutions whom the government bailed out with taxpayers’ monies at the expense of the poor homeowner who was foreclosed upon.

    On a different level, I also heartily enjoy the mordant and grandiloquent sarcasm which elevates the column to a literary masterpiece.

  8. November 16, 2011 at 5:38 pm | permalink

    Re (7), yes, we have lots of stories about the nationwide problem that banks are holding onto foreclosed properties, apparently because they don’t want to have to “take the loss”, i.e. acknowledge it on their books. That is, of course, a problem that should be addressed in Washington. But this evocative account illustrates the problem in a way that dry statistics don’t.

  9. By pat
    November 16, 2011 at 7:00 pm | permalink

    I just want to say I think you & your neighbors are wonderful. Wish there were more like you.
    Sorry about the problem with Bank of America & the house next door; it is indicative of its attitude towards homeowners who are underwater and unable to make their house payments because of the terrible economy which has caused so much unemployment and foreclosure. BA would rather foreclose and let the empty house rot because they are reimbursed by the government (taxpayers) for any loss they take. Maybe your city council could have it condemned as a safety & health hazard, then bulloze it down and leave the lot empty.

  10. By Pamela
    November 16, 2011 at 7:21 pm | permalink

    This guy is a find. This paper should promote the hell out of him

  11. By liberalNIMBY
    November 16, 2011 at 7:48 pm | permalink

    A complex problem brilliantly illustrated. Each of your articles outdoes the previous. I hope you find even more outlets for your excellent storytelling; just don’t drop the AAC when you’re syndicated!

  12. By Deb
    November 16, 2011 at 8:02 pm | permalink

    Great article! Where is your voice now when needed the most, there isn’t enough intelligent voices heard right (or left) now which sadly diminishes the OWS movement. Actually I’ve made fun of OWS in the past few months for a serious lack of foresight and a viable message. But by reading this? I just took a double take; as a matter o0f fact I think I just looked like Jack Benny! Simply great, to the point, and if you want a message that can encompass the angst we are ALL feeling on both sides? Bingo! This is the voice to read and with incredible reason to back it up.
    BTW, RIP Mike.

  13. By Matt Lewis
    November 16, 2011 at 9:46 pm | permalink

    This is a great article and deserves a wider audience. On a personal level, though, I’m struck by how similar living next to BoA seems to be like living next to me.

  14. By metasonix
    November 16, 2011 at 11:11 pm | permalink

    Just fyi, that “Bank Of America Home Loans” office, 4500 Park Granada in Calabasas, is only a mail drop that Countrywide established long ago. It was one of the slimy tricks that Angelo Mozilo and his Mafia buddies figured out back in the 1960s–you take the mail in at a rented office, but if a process server shows up to serve a subpoena or a court order, the people at the mail drop are coached to say “sorry, we’re not Countrywide employees, we’re an independent contractor, and all we do is process and sort their mail here”. When BofA bought the remains of Countrywide, they simply kept on using the same tricks.

    You will see more big banks take up those techniques.

  15. By Roger Rayle
    November 17, 2011 at 2:15 am | permalink

    Great article. Would expect nothing less after seeing David’s talk at the 07/31/2010 Ignite Maker Faire Detroit: “Tricking Yourself into Writing” [link to video]

  16. November 17, 2011 at 7:43 am | permalink

    I don’t know who’s conduct I like less the mortgage holder or the city’s.

  17. By Margaret
    November 17, 2011 at 8:17 am | permalink

    Great writing. I loved this. There is a property in my neighborhood that I am watching. What I have learned is that you have a very tiny window to buy a property and keep it from rotting. As part of the foreclosure process, there is a sheriff’s sale. A notice is posted on the house with the date of the sale. You need to bring a cashier’s check. I saw the notice the day after the sale. What happens almost always is that the bank holding the mortgage buys the property back from itself (yeah, that’s right). This is what happened with this house. Then the law requires that the purchaser must wait 6 months before putting the house on the market (to give the homeowner time to somehow reclaim it). If they do not list the house on the market, there is no way to buy it from the bank, no matter who you call. I’ve been in touch with the homeowner who would love to help me buy it but can do nothing. I called the bank, Wells Fargo, got nowhere. We shall see what they do when the 6 months is up.

  18. By DR
    November 17, 2011 at 10:19 am | permalink

    I have an idea: Why don’t you have someone estimate the loss in value to your property, and that of all your neighbours, from having a house in disrepair next to yours, and sue BofA for the depreciation as well as punitive damages? That would likely get their nickers in enough of a twist that they might actually do something about the property.

  19. November 17, 2011 at 8:40 pm | permalink

    Outstanding article! Isn’t it just awful that the big banks in their foreclosure feeding frenzy are leaving homes in disrepair (or, in some cases actually tearing them down!) when so many people just need a roof over their heads? The housing market and all the associated parts of the greater economy will not recover as long as this is going on. And our federal government is enabling the banks and doing nothing for the ordinary people. When did it become good for the long-term economic stability of this country to have a homeless, jobless middle class?

    Oh, and you were lucky. “Force placing” homeowners’ insurance on a mortgage holder is one of the sneaky little strategies the banksters use to try to nudge more people into foreclosure. Google the term and you’ll find all kinds of horror stories. You’re lucky you found some help at your insurance company.

  20. By MBJohnston
    November 17, 2011 at 11:48 pm | permalink

    Here’s who is responsible along with BOA: [link] Countrywide didn’t even respond to their claim when offered. BOA hasn’t had the courtesy to stop sending correspondence 1-2 times per week for the last 3.5 years even after receiving multiple letters reminding them that they own the property. Something needs to be done. Local elected officials shouldn’t stand for this type of blatant misuse of power over their citizens. The local government along with the neighborhood is hurt. Who’s going to listen? Who’s willing to do anything? Who’s going to take a stand?

  21. November 20, 2011 at 10:21 pm | permalink

    Fantastic article. You rock!

  22. By Mecro
    November 22, 2011 at 10:14 am | permalink

    We have two uninhabited properties in our neighborhood that have both been empty for over five years. They are owned by people and not by banks. The properties are minimally maintained and are eyesores, becoming homes to rats, mice, and snakes, and dragging down the value of neighbors’ properties. Who can we call to find out what pressure can be made on the property owners to either sell these houses, fix them up and rent them, or tear them down?

  23. December 6, 2011 at 6:13 pm | permalink

    Re: “Who can we call to find out what pressure can be made on the property owners to either sell these houses, fix them up and rent them, or tear them down?”

    Lost in the shuffle of city council committee appointments made at the Dec. 5 meeting, was a new position: council liaison to the city’s nuisance committee. That job was assigned to Stephen Kunselman. Kunselman can be reached at SKunselman AT