Aaron Glantz knows he is lucky. Aided by family members, good timing, the color of his white skin, the regrettable misfortune of strangers, and just enough income from his position as senior reporter at Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting, the two-time Peabody Award winning journalist is a Bay Area homeowner.
In his new book, Homewreckers: How a Gang of Wall Street Kingpins, Hedge Fund Magnates, Crooked Banks, and Vulture Capitalists Suckered Millions Out of Their Homes and Demolished the American Dream (William Morrow), Glantz weaves an intricate tale of why many others are not so fortunate. The book explains the 21st century housing crisis, miraculously made comprehensible by concise storytelling based on hundreds of interviews, including sensitively told stories of six homeowners (representing millions of victims) and scathing exposés of 14 alpha male "villains."
Demonstrating why eight million single-family homes are no longer owned by individuals, Gantz writes of foreclosures, failed banks, redlining, LLC shell companies, and billions of dollars in government subsidies provided during and after the 2008 housing collapse to people like Trump cabinet members Wilbur Ross (U.S. Secretary of Commerce), Steven Mnuchin (U.S. Treasury Secretary) and others. But in a Nov. 7 presentation sponsored by KPFA Radio 94.1 FM and The Center for Investigative Reporting, Glantz advised the audience not to mistake Homewreckers for an exclusively anti-Trump diatribe.
Although many of the villains are among Trump's friends and associates, Congress and the Obama and Bush administrations also played a role in the bursting housing bubble. Failed federal legislation during the Great Recession and bank bailouts he said were made because they were "easier and faster," plus other setbacks that occurred during Obama's eight years in office left individuals and entire communities vulnerable to a landslide of foreclosures and American taxpayers saddled with financial repercussions.
As he researched, Glantz discovered homeownership had gone down every single year in the decade since 2008. "It bottomed out in 2016 at the lowest level in 50 years," he said. "It just so happened that Obama was president during eight of those ten years."
As a 19-year-old kid in his first job at KPFA studios, Glantz had learned that talking to people affected by policy, not to the policymakers, was most vital. "We get results when we lean into the things that really matter," Glantz said.
Leaning into a question he had as a young reporter — "Am I ever going to be able to afford to live in the city I grew up in, as an adult?" — Glantz realized in 2009 that the answer was a happy "yes," and became a homeowner. At least, it was for him; but not for many other people. "I kept looking around for the other happy endings," he said. "I was not seeing that."
Featured most prominently in Homewreckers is Sandy Jolley, a Southern California homeowner who continued to fight even after losing her home to foreclosure. Eventually becoming a federal whistleblower, Jolley won an $89 million settlement for herself and other taxpayers. Gantz said Jolley personally received about $500,000; "about the amount her house would be worth if she still had it." Even so, she is the cornerstone of his hope, and foundational to the solutions laid out in his book. "Sandy, she's still going," Glantz said. "She says at the end of the book, 'I'm not a victim, I'm not a hero. I'm a warrior and warriors fight.'"
Asked in a Q&A about solutions to the crisis, Glantz, who has probed dark corners of public interest in three prior books, made clear he holds no illusions about the frayed, flawed scene. The "American Dream" of building capital and financial security for a family by owning a home has become more dream than American, he suggested. Past efforts to boost housing — the National Housing Act and G.I. Bill, initiatives that in the 20th century offered government-backed homeownership to white home buyers in white neighborhoods — were incredibly racist. Foreclosures continue to disproportionately and negatively impact people and communities of color. A marginal effort to correct the situation with subsidized loans in communities of color Gantz said "only helped three African-American families and 11 Latino families over five years while they (the homewreckers) were investing in fracking, Hollywood movie ventures" and more.
Gantz suggested that progressive change will only arrive by shifting the debate beyond the dynamics of supply and demand. He called for nationalizing the topic, including it in the presidential debates on the same scale as health care discussions, and exposing the money monopoly that supports kingpins and titans of the industry who use other people's money to increase their wealth. Among his specific solutions? He described housing and community reinvestment acts "with teeth" to eliminate redlining, anti-rent gouging bills to reduce eviction rates, and myth-busting the idea that a large portion of the people who lost their homes did so by walking away. In reality, Glantz said that home loans are remarkably complicated and people are "just being hammered by banks and loan companies."
Finally, one idea that came from Jolley, would have the federal government using public domain to claim foreclosed homes. Instead of going to private equity firms owned by the villainous homewreckers, the program would allow people to homestead, pay back their loans to the government, and put money in taxpayer's pockets.