Facing cancer and loss of home

March 31, 2009|By DAN RODRICKS

Not for the reasons he cites do I wish Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke proves correct - that small banks will have a big role in recharging the economy.

"If community banks are prudent but opportunistic in extending credit to strong borrowers, they will help the economy recover while benefiting from that recovery themselves," Bernanke said.

Community banks should be able to make loans that big institutions, ensnared in all those complex security thickets, are still avoiding, and they could come to the rescue when local businesses or families need help with credit.

The Washington Post reported the other day that some community banks have seen deposits rise by 8 percent this year. So if the small banks prevail, and they help retailers and consumers alike through this mess, maybe more of us will appreciate their value.

Maybe the bank-consumer relationship becomes more personal again.

Maybe people like Steve Kropkowski can catch a break.

Pardon me for idealizing customer service at a community bank - I'm a sucker for It's a Wonderful Life and the way George Bailey conducted business at his "wonderful old building and loan" - but I have to believe that Kropkowski might not be facing foreclosure today had his lender been local. It's a leap to presume that, of course, but at least that's the way things ought to be, or might be in the future. A man ought to be able to sit in a room and work things out, one human being to another.

The big institutions - such as Kropkowski's lender, San Francisco-based Wells Fargo - operate on such a large scale they don't have time to hear all the details.

The details don't take all that much time, and they go like this:

Steve Kropkowski is married to Rebecca, and Rebecca, who turns 41 on Wednesday, has brain cancer. She was diagnosed three years ago; she soon will be receiving hospice care at home. For the past year, Rebecca, an accountant, has been unable to work, so they lost considerable income and accumulated a considerable amount of medical bills their insurance did not cover. Complicating matters, Rebecca made mistakes with the $2,400 monthly mortgage payment on their house in Harford County.

Despite her condition, she had remained in charge of some bills, including the one from Wells Fargo. Apparently, she did not pay the mortgage for December, January and February.

Steve thinks his wife might have been confused. The couple always divided the bills; Steve assumed Rebecca was taking care of hers. He says he did not see any late notices from Wells Fargo until March 1, when the bank wrote that the account was 90 days' past due. The Kropkowskis owed close to $8,000, and the bank said it would start foreclosure proceedings if it did not receive more than half that amount by last Friday.

"I managed to send in $3,000," Steve Kropkowski said. "But I'm still behind, so I'm going to pay another $1,500 this week when I get paid. ... Look, we made a mistake. I admit that. I thought these bills had been paid. So I asked Wells Fargo to work out a payment plan with me so I can catch up in two or three months. But they said no."

"They" was a Wells Fargo representative sitting in a call center in who-knows-where, someone Kropkowski found after "hitting about 10 buttons on my phone." (Wells Fargo did not, by press time Monday evening, respond to a request for comment on the Kropkowskis' loan.)

I need to stop here and note something: Steve Kropkowski's father, George, contacted me after the foreclosure notice arrived in his son's mail. Neither Steve nor Rebecca came to me for help, and Rebecca, in particular, was reluctant to share all the details. "I'm not a sob story kind of guy," Steve said Monday.

But here I am with the story, for a couple of reasons - to show how tough it can be to get a large institution to make accommodations and to show how easy it can be to fall behind, with the potential of losing your home. It could happen to any of us.

Steve Kropkowski and his wife have been married for 10 years. They have two children, one 3 and one 6.

"We've never missed a mortgage payment until now," Steve said. "And with my wife being sick, all the other bills have piled up, too."

Something else I should mention: Steve Kropkowski is a salesman with a DJ business on the side. He's been a DJ for a long time, and, even before Rebecca's diagnosis, he donated his services to fundraisers for the American Cancer Society. He's organized bull roasts and golf outings to raise money for cancer research.

I don't know if it will make any difference, but I thought I should note all this and present it in print. Maybe someone at Wells Fargo will call Steve Kropkowski back and make some new arrangements so he and his family can get through this tough time without worrying about losing their home.

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