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Date published: 10/5/2012
The Washington Post
WASHINGTON--The scene at a Prince William County church on a recent weeknight may have been startling to regulators and some homeowners just a few years ago: a room full of politicians, interfaith leaders and about 700 congregants rising to their feet and praising Bank of America, once reviled by some for its banking practices.
Bank of America executive Andrew Plepler, in charge of global corporate responsibility, said the bank has been a steadfast partner of Virginians Organized for Interfaith Community Engagement, a coalition of more than 40 interfaith congregations that have sought to hold banks and politicians accountable for the 2008 housing crisis.
On Monday, VOICE sought to hold executives from Bank of America, JPMorgan Chase and General Electric to promises made at past meetings. But JPMorgan and GE officials were absent from St. Paul United Methodist Church in Woodbridge, where the pews were packed and the crowd was standing-room-only.
Congregants rose to their feet when Plepler proposed to extend grants for certified housing counselors in the county for three more years; approve new home loans to those who have been foreclosed on; provide $5 million to build 300 affordable homes; and live up to requirements mandated in the National Mortgage Settlement, including reducing mortgages.
The settlement, announced this year, is an agreement among 49 state attorneys general, including Virginia's, that dedicated $25 billion nationally to lower mortgages for those who are "underwater," or owe more than their home is worth, among other requirements.
U.S. Sen. Mark R. Warner (D-Va.), addressed the crowd, as did Shaun Donovan, secretary of Housing and Urban Development, who pledged to use federal resources to specifically help homeowners in Prince William. Republican state Delegates L. Scott Lingamfelter and Richard Anderson, among others, also attended.
Prince William County was hit hard by the national housing-market collapse, and nearly half of all homeowners in the county remain underwater. By staging public actions such as the one Monday--inviting local and federal politicians, regulators and corporate representatives--VOICE has sought to hold banks accountable and have them contribute money to help rebuild communities.
Prince William was the hardest-hit county in Virginia when it comes to foreclosures, and VOICE leaders say the subprime mortgage industry targeted the county in part for its low-income, minority populations.
The Rev. Clyde Ellis said the journey with Bank of America started when he confronted chief executive Brian Moynihan at a shareholders meeting in Charlotte last year. The executive then followed through on promises to work with the group.
Ellis similarly hopes to obtain a meeting with JPMorgan chief executive Jamie Dimon--a request that has been elusive, he said. Leaders also hope to engage GE.
GE used to own California-based WMC Mortgage, which has been discontinued but whose subprime loans were handed out in large numbers across the country, including in Prince William.
They have gotten a meeting and promises from GE chief Jeffrey Immelt, an adviser to President Obama, but VOICE hopes that GE's response will rise to the level of Bank of America.
"Tonight I want to celebrate the leadership of Bank of America," Ellis said.