6 Jul



July 5, 2010



A microcosm of the current economic collapse goes by the name Lembi.

The surname belongs to a San Francisco family that binged on residential real estate for five years and has now become a cautionary tale. “The story of the Lembis…could be seen as emblematic of the real estate boom in general,” reported Richard Parks for the San Francisco Panorama. “They took extreme measures to ensure returns on their highly leveraged investments. … At their peak, various Lembi-owned LLCs controlled more than 300 apartment buildings and 8,200 units in the city.”

The family, caught in the midst of its gorge and now barfing what they call a “shadow inventory” of depreciated buildings back into a depressed market, is illustrative of the world we find ourselves in. In cities across the US, these shadow inventories sit vacant, empty of the families they were intended for.

But there’s a group of citizens who specialize in trying to right these myriad wrongs, to turn rightside up this capsized housing market. They’re called housing counselors. My wife is one.

They have a lot less power than you would hope.


When amid the saturation of warm rain and thick noise I started a column and called it The Built Environment, I had no idea my wife, Allison (Al for short), would be working to restore that very thing: Chicago’s built environment.

Most people have never heard of housing counselors. We hadn’t. Here’s what her official job description might look like:

• Conduct one-on-one meetings with clients to determine current financial situation and to educate on future housing options;
• Follow-up with clients to encourage consistent responsible financial budgeting;
• Compile and submit appropriate documentation to lenders;
• Negotiate workout plans with lenders;
• Keep up-to-date, detailed files on clients according to HUD guidelines; and
• Assist with reports to ensure compliance with all grant guidelines.

Here’s a more accurate description:

• Spend majority of work day talking to incompetent peons who can’t actually help the situation;
• Fight for families who will never be able to afford the home they bought;
• Cry occasionally; and
• Meet lots of interesting people who are more aware than you of how hopeless the situation is.

It’s a literal manifestation of the phrase “between a rock and a hard place.” Except we need to cover all avenues of escape: between the rock and the hard place, 4,000 little men caulk every crevice, pack grout into the cracks, and seal it up tight, blocking out the sun and entombing you in a perpetual “in the middleness,” never able to escape the glaring eye of two parties that have nothing against the other, but rather who both share a total ignorance, a misplaced trust, and an inability to see a way forward.

If this sounds overly dramatic, don’t become a housing counselor.

As one lawyer involved in mitigating a foreclosure noted: “…The banks are mostly apathetic, confused, poorly informed, and poorly managed.” He describes it as “a giant warehouse where underlings paid minimum wage simply parrot a written script, crunching numbers in a giant database in which a thousand tubes and wires cross and intersect one another but ultimately lead nowhere.”

This picture would make anyone cringe, but housing counselors are special victims, because they don’t have the leverage of a lawyer—they can’t threaten bankruptcy. Al spends hours upon hours listening to elevator music, hours she doesn’t have because there are always time limits, always deadlines. This country’s poor live in a constant state of utter time management: get these documents to this location by this time.

Unfortunately in the mortgage-refinancing world, by the time you get to this place, the game has changed—new rules, new place, new time. A wild goose chase orchestrated by an entity that has no interest in helping anyone—and no idea where its own chase will ultimately end.



One Response to “TBE 14 Part I :: A SUBPRIME LIFE”

  1. Brian July 6, 2010 at 6:00 pm #

    The tragic beauty of bureaucracy.

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