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Foreclosure Continues to Roil Midwest, But Issue Not at Main Focus of Presidential Campaign

DES MOINES – Steps away from Indiana Avenue sits a house with plywood on most of its windows. The windows not covered have rotting frames and the faux brick siding is peeling. Beside the graffiti sprayed on the front, “Priced 2 Sell” is painted on both picture windows.

A few doors down, another house is boarded up. So is yet another.

With the freezing wind whipping trash down the sidewalk, one might think this is the South Side of Chicago. But it’s not. It’s Des Moines, on the day before the Iowa caucuses; the first in the nation to choose which Republican candidate its residents think should run against President Obama.

Some say Iowa – mostly white, mostly rural – does not accurately represent American voters. But Iowans – like Chicagoans and millions of people throughout the U.S. – have been affected by foreclosure.

Many argue Obama has not done enough to address the housing crisis, but both Chicagoans and Iowans say none of the GOP candidates has proposed better ideas to fix it.

“I never missed a house payment. I used to have platinum credit. Now I can’t buy a doughnut with it,” said Mike Adams, 56, who moved back to Des Moines to live with relatives after he lost his suburban Atlanta home in 2009.

“My family would still be together if that hadn’t happened,” said Adams, now separated from his wife who’s nearly 1,000 miles away with their children living at a grandparents’ home in Georgia.

Adams said his house was his American Dream – with three bedrooms, a bonus room, an attached garage, a garden with a fountain in the back on a half-acre of land in a good neighborhood.

But that dream began to crumble in 2008, three years after he bought the home, when his 11.9 percent interest rate jumped to 18 percent, and again a year later to 26 percent. The extra $458 per month became impossible to pay when Adams lost his job of 17 years setting up trade shows

While Adams said he probably borrowed more than he should, he said the bank did not give him enough direction when explaining his adjustable rate mortgage. He said bank employees told him not to worry because when he signed up, the economy was strong.

The adjustable rate, he said, “was set up to trap people.”

Adams is not alone. In 2006, Americans began telling similar stories of losing homes as a result of risky banking practices and a falling economy.

Two years later the world watched as Chicagoans gathered in Grant Park to celebrate Obama’s election, full of hope that he would improve the economy and heal the housing crisis.

But today, as all eyes are on Iowa, the mood has changed. Americans are still fighting foreclosure, home values have dropped and many can’t pay their mortgages due to massive unemployment.

“Obama ran a campaign off of hope – for millions of Americans, the hope was sucked out of them,” said Chairman Willie JR Fleming of the Chicago Anti-Eviction Campaign.

“He is the president. He was elected to resolve these issues, and he hasn’t done that,” Fleming said.

But not everyone agrees.

“He’s done a better job than anyone else could have done,” said Redge Blobaum, owner of Family Discount, a River Bend  neighborhood store that’s sold home repair items, such as paint and carpeting, to low-income residents in Des Moines since 1982.

Blobaum said he hasn’t heard much from any of the GOP candidates about how they plan to fix the housing crisis.

He thinks creating jobs could help, and front-runner Mitt Romney may be the best GOP candidate to do that. But he’s concerned Romney will favor the rich.

“Romney is the most stable business person,” he said.

But Chris Neubert, housing and financial safety organizer at Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement doesn’t think creating jobs alone will fix the crisis.

“Creating jobs doesn’t get to the heart of the problem,” he said.

Both Neubert and Jordan Estevao, bank accountability campaign director at partner group National People’s Action in Chicago, think principal reduction across the board is the best solution.

They said if banks reduce the $700 billion nationwide estimated to fill the gap between the amount owed on mortgages and the homes’ actual value, more Americans would be able to keep their homes, saving homeowners $71 billion per year, putting money back in the hands of everyday people to spend and stimulate the economy.

Neubert and Estevao also agree Obama hasn’t done enough to fix the problem, and the GOP candidates haven’t proposed anything better.

“It was a crisis three years ago; it’s a crisis today, and I don’t see the candidates talking about it,” Neubert said.

And Adams, who said the bank is still trying to collect $167,000 he can’t pay back, hasn’t heard anything from the GOP either. But he still has faith in Obama.

“He had a lot on his plate when he got in there – he’s fighting the good fight,” Adams said.

“Four years isn’t enough time,” but he said he believes Obama can turn the housing market around if he serves a second term.

“No matter how dark it is, there’s always hope for a better future,” Adams said.

“Politicians need to put their differences aside and do what needs to be done to get our country going.”

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