Posted on Thursday, October 21, 2010
Lisa Epstein flutters about the happy hour at E.R. Bradley's Saloon with a big smile and a small vodka and soda. She's a mother of a 3-year-old girl, a nurse to cancer patients and a deadbeat.
Oh, she knows that's what people call her since she stopped being able to afford her mortgage payment last year and went into foreclosure.
In fact, most of the people at the Foreclosure Hamlet's monthly happy hour gathering on Thursday haven't made a house payment in months, or even years.
Divorced, sick, laid-off or self-employed in an economy on the wagon, they're all derelict borrowers.
They gather for support and to share information, drawn by a feisty nurse in a cute pink scarf who — through persistence, willpower and her Foreclosure Hamlet blog — helped force the big banks to acknowledge that their massive home repossession operations were flawed.
It's not often Wall Street is pushed to take a step back by a grass-roots effort of citizen investigators, but Epstein, 45, and fellow local blogger Michael Redman, 35, of 4closurefraud.org, are partly credited with the moratorium some major lenders placed on foreclosure proceedings.
They have been combing through Palm Beach County court documents for more than a year, posting suspicious foreclosure affidavits on their blogs; writing to judges, attorneys, politicians and reporters; and attracting a rock-star-like following of thousands nationwide.
"We used to be the wacko fringe, now we're cutting edge," said Epstein, sipping her first and only alcoholic drink of the evening and snacking on the free popcorn. "Finally, my questions are being asked by hundreds of reporters and attorneys general nationwide."
Epstein's road from full-time nurse to foreclosure fighter began when she started hearing her cancer patients talk about their mortgage woes.
In summer 2009, a patient with brain cancer was being evicted from her home. Epstein examined the court records and found that the foreclosure was scheduled for a summary judgment hearing — a quickie court trial requested when the banks argue that the foreclosure facts are irrefutable.
Epstein helped the woman write a letter to read to the judge and went to court with the woman on her lunch break. Neither could figure out who the true owner of the woman's loan was, and when the bank's attorneys didn't show up at the hearing, the judge canceled the summary judgment.
"I believe nobody, and I mean nobody, knows who owns what anymore," Epstein said. "We as borrowers didn't create that situation."
When Epstein found herself unable to get a loan modification on a condo she was trying to sell, she ended up in foreclosure. Her 800 credit score tumbled.
She said she started hanging out at the courthouse, talking to attorneys, sifting through foreclosure filings and sitting in on trials.
Oddly, she said she was an introvert before her foreclosure — so quiet, she jokes, that she was afraid her daughter wouldn't learn to talk.
But in October 2009, she started ForeclosureHamlet.org. A month later, she held her first foreclosure happy hour.
"This has been an amazing amount of support for me, and knowledge," said Jensen Beach resident Nicole West, who said she was "bait and switched" into a predatory loan that she can no longer afford.
"The banks beat you up for so long that you want to just give up," said West, who attended Thursday's happy hour. "But these people here, they are a very rare breed who are willing to fight." By Kimberly Miller, The Palm Beach Post