In the rush of information from a 24-hour news cycle it’s difficult to hold on to the small cumulative facts that stream by as part of a major news story. There’s a shortage of long-form journalism, either in print or in broadcasting, that can bring an event into full and unflinching focus. That’s where a book like Chain of Title is especially valuable.
David Dayen places three “ordinary Americans” in the center of this book about the housing/banking crisis of 2007-2008. The most powerful character in the book is Lisa Epstein. Like millions of other Americans, Epstein was a victim of the banks. She worked as a nurse, was careful with her money, invested carefully in a house she could afford, and after marrying bought a new home with her husband. While she never missed a payment she found herself in a legal battle over foreclosure.
Lisa noticed irregularities in the notices that she was receiving and became obsessed with researching both the laws and bank practices surrounding foreclosure. The things she found would give any homeowner with a mortgage nightmares, and were the cause of millions of people losing their homes … the largest loss of wealth in American history … even for those who had never missed a payment in their lives.
Among other practices she found a banker-created clearinghouse for shifting titles outside the control of county records that regulated property titles for the whole of the country’s history. She discovered foreclosure mills in which employees holding notary seals would forge the signatures of bank officers and then notarize the documents. She found lenders who were foreclosing on homes without having any financial interest in the property.
The book details Epstein’s obsessive research and her efforts to try to get action from the US Department of Justice and the judges making the rulings on foreclosures. She and another of the book’s major personalities, Michael Redman, join forces to try to educate homeowners through a website on their basic rights while collecting as much evidence as possible.
It’s almost as frustrating and terrifying to read as it must have been for those finding themselves homeless without having done anything wrong. It would be nice to say that the work of Epstein and others helped solve the problem. Instead, Dayen details the inaction of Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner and his ability to convince Obama that the issue was not a danger to the banking industry (as if it were the only important player). He tells of the Department of Justice closing down the one working team that picked up the investigation and running the investigators out of their jobs. He covers the slow conversion of judges and attorneys dealing with foreclosure, where history left them with the presumption that the banks didn’t lie and anyone facing foreclosure was clearly guilty with no evidence provided. And, finally, he describes the total failure to act by Congress, either by refusing to pass remedial legislation or refusing to fund programs that did pass. This is an indictment of the banking system but it’s also an indictment of a legal system unwilling or unable to adapt to benefit voters over contributors.
If you read it like I did you may find your jaw tired from grinding your teeth at the end of the day. It isn’t easy to read about people being railroaded out of their rightful property by greedy swine at the trough, and then blamed for the theft as people wanting a free handout. Still, knowledge is power. This is the kind of book that can fuel the fire needed for change. If you find yourself wondering why you should bother about the next election this book will give you the reason.