Baltimore's subprime pain stands in for the nation's in 'Casino'

  • Baltimore was used as the nexus of Leslie (pictured) and Andrew Cockburn's documentary, "American Casino."
Baltimore was used as the nexus of Leslie (pictured) and Andrew… (Handout )
November 13, 2009|By Chris Kaltenbach | chris.kaltenbach@baltsun.com

Baltimore was used as the nexus of Leslie and Andrew Cockburn's we-should-have-known-better documentary, "American Casino," not because the city has been a hotbed of subprime mortgage suffering, even though the film lays out a pretty convincing argument that such is the case.

In fact, the Cockburns say, Baltimore's experience is pretty typical of the pain being felt throughout the country, as hard-working people are being forced from their homes and municipalities are faced with declining tax revenue and an increase in the need for services.

But other cities aren't just up the road from the Cockburns' Washington base, and that made all the difference.

"When you're making a documentary, you want to be able to go where you're filming without hopping on a plane all the time," says director Leslie Cockburn, who has spent much of the past 22 years making documentaries that she and her husband, Andrew, co-produce. "You know, there are a lot of people in D.C. who never go to Baltimore. This was an opportunity to look at what was happening in American cities, but through a city that was right next door to us."

Adds Andrew Cockburn, "The problems that we highlight in Baltimore, you could find in several dozen other American cities - Cleveland, Buffalo, Detroit, Chicago. It's not like we found that Baltimore was a specific case."

Still, such an accident of geography doesn't lessen the seriousness of the situation here. "American Casino" uses the stories of three city residents - a high school teacher, a minister and a therapist - to illustrate how lower- and middle-income people were enticed into taking on mortgages they could ill afford, often at the urging of bank and other loan officials who weren't above lying to get the loan approved (and the income from fees to start rolling in). Often, banks then turned around and sold the loans to other financial companies, spreading the risk from any potential failure over a greater area like some malignant subprime cancer.

As the oft-hidden monthly costs keep ballooning, the new homeowners often find themselves evicted - leaving not only people living on the streets but banks saddled with empty houses they can neither sell nor afford to maintain properly. And empty houses falling into disrepair is bad news for any city.

Their choice of Baltimore reaped added dividends, the Cockburns note, when the city decided to fight back. Claiming there was a pattern of targeting African-Americans and other minorities for these ticking-time-bomb loans, the city filed suit in January 2008 against one of the biggest lenders, California-based Wells Fargo, charging racial discrimination. Wells Fargo officials have countered that race is not a factor in setting loan rates.

"American Casino" includes footage of Mayor Sheila Dixon and other city officials dealing with the tumult left behind by the still-unfolding mortgage mess.

Of the three Baltimoreans profiled, one ends up keeping his house, in part because he filed for bankruptcy. The other two end up homeless, one losing a house that had been in her family for generations. Their stories, just like the subprime mortgage crisis itself, remain unsettled.

"I have no idea what is going to happen," says Leslie Cockburn. "All you can say is that this nuclear time bomb is still unwinding - it hasn't unwound yet, even though you can look at the cheerful numbers of the stock market. But for cities like Baltimore, this stuff will just continue to unwind."

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