To walk Thayer Street in northeast Philadelphia is to count, door by door, the economic devastation afflicting a working-class neighborhood. On a single block, 18 of the 42 brick rowhouses have gone into foreclosure in the past three years.
"Mortgage companies convinced us to refinance, and each time our bill went up," O'Mara said as he surveyed his narrow street from his shaded front porch. "You fall behind and they swoop down on you."
State and federal regulators place much of the blame for the foreclosure problem at the feet of mortgage brokers and bankers, who have crafted ever-riskier ways for Americans with poor credit to buy homes. Interest-only and adjustable-rate mortgages account for 63 percent of new mortgages.
But many policymakers say the rise in foreclosures leads to a larger question: Is the push to boost homeownership -- successive presidential administrations have strongly promoted it -- backfiring? As home prices and personal debt rise to record levels, they note, homeownership has become an albatross for millions of Americans, destroying rather than creating wealth.
But the Reinvestment Fund, a Philadelphia-based think tank, analyzed 22,979 foreclosures for the state Banking Department and found a more problematic profile. Those homeowners, most of whom are blacks, Latinos or working-class whites, live close to the economic margin.
They have low incomes and little or no health insurance -- 40 percent of those who sought emergency foreclosure help cited medical costs as the cause of their distress.
Pennsylvania's foreclosure problem is not just an urban phenomenon. Montgomery County contains a genteel stretch of suburbs north of Philadelphia. But from 2000 to 2003, county officials recorded almost 5,000 foreclosure filings, a 14.6 percent increase. Arline, Woodland and Lindbergh avenues run through Abington, a pleasant lower-middle-class town with ranch houses and cherry trees, children's slides and neatly tended gardens. On each of these blocks, three or four houses have gone into foreclosure in the past four years
Philadelphia Sheriff John D. Green has a front-row seat as these dramas play out. In mid-June, he will auction another thousand or so foreclosed homes. "My staff and I watch the suffering every day," he wrote recently in a letter to residents posted on his Web site. He said they "witness the heart-wrenching scenes as families lose their primary means of wealth building and face eviction."
And so it begins....