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Shark Hunters 

Stalking the Great White Loan Shark.

On a frigid Saturday morning, 42 East Siders pile into a Rent-A-Bus, armed with a megaphone, fliers, and 2,000 rubber sharks.

The bus fills with the anticipation of the hunt. They're stalking what they believe is the Great White Loan Shark -- Countrywide Financial.

It's the fourth-largest lender in Cleveland and one of the largest in the country, handing out over $1 trillion in loans a year. For the past 35 years, the California company has operated as a reputable lender, voted "America's #1 residential lender" by Inside Mortgage Finance.

But to the people on this bus, that's only true if you're white.

While Countrywide has a great reputation for conventional lending, its high-interest subsidiary, Full Spectrum, works through independent brokers, who've been accused of loading mortgages with junk fees and exorbitant appraisals. These high-cost loans account for 20 percent of Countrywide's lending in Cleveland. And according to the Home Mortgage Disclosure Act, nearly all of them are handed out in black neighborhoods.

In 2004, Countrywide made 25 percent more high-cost loans in middle-income minority neighborhoods than in middle-income white areas, according to federal data. The same study also shows that most of Countrywide's high-cost loans were concentrated in the East Side's low-income black neighborhoods.

This fact is not lost on the bus riders, nearly all of whom are black.

"They have a good product -- if you're white," says Mark Seifert, executive director of the East Side Organizing Project, a nonprofit that works on behalf of predatory-lending victims. "If you're black, you're gonna get a bad loan."

Predatory lending is particularly troublesome in Cleveland, which boasts the nation's highest foreclosure rate. Less-than-ethical banks were long assisted by state government, which, until last month, had refused to apply conventional consumer-protection laws to the industry, going so far as to sue cities that enacted their own.

"These people are ruining our communities," says Avery Johnson, a victim of predatory lending. "They're worse than the drug dealers. They're responsible for all these empty houses just sitting there."

Fed up with watching their neighborhoods turn into foreclosed ghost towns, these 42 people decided to take their beef 30 miles east, to the Painesville neighborhood of Mike Garmone, a regional vice president of Countrywide.

As the scenery changes from tract homes and factories to stables and mansions, the protesters share war stories.

Johnson, an Iraq War veteran, was duped by a broker who loaded his loan with huge fees and an adjustable interest rate that promises to hit 12 percent next year, forcing him and his wife to ignore the utility bills just to make their mortgage. "We are barely living," he says. "I'm a college graduate, and I never thought I could get duped by these people, but then I realized you don't have to be the poorest guy in the city to be fooled."

Then there's Gwendolyn Allen, who came to ESOP in January after she tried to sell her $103,000 Warrensville Heights home to a Countrywide borrower. Allen's mortgage company wouldn't accept the sale. After settlement charges, Allen would only be receiving $91,000 -- not enough to pay off her balance. That's because a Countrywide broker tacked on fees that totaled 25 percent of the actual loan -- fees Allen was being asked to eat.

Jennifer Bullock ended up losing her home to Countrywide. Her house had been over-appraised, leaving her with a hefty mortgage she couldn't afford. Once Countrywide started calling and threatening foreclosure, Bullock got scared and simply vacated her home. "She's just terrified," Seifert says.

As the bus rolls into Garmone's neighborhood, jaws drop at the mammoth brick and vinyl-sided structures with their three-car garages.

"It looks like it's straight out of a Charles Dickens novel," Johnson says.

An older man turns to him and expresses defeat. "Aw, man! You think these people gonna help us? Look at their houses!"

The bus winds around the cul-de-sac and approaches Garmone's snow-covered $450,000 house. Seifert goes to the front door and rings the bell. No one home.

That doesn't stop the protesters. Johnson gets on the megaphone. "Hey, hey, ho, ho, Countrywide has got to go!" he chants.

The group follows Johnson's lead as teenagers drop off fliers at neighbors' homes. "Your neighbor is a wanted man!!!" reads the message. "More than 65 percent of his loans are targeted at low-moderate income communities."

Barbara Anderson drops rubber sharks into the shrubs, while others scatter them on the driveway. "He'll have fun raking those out in the spring," she says.

After 15 minutes of chanting, shark-throwing, and flier-dropping, the group piles back on the bus and heads home.

"I bet his neighbors were scared," Johnson says. "They probably hadn't seen that many black people all together since they watched an Indians game on TV."

"I was terrified they were gonna call the police, with all those young black kids running around to their houses," says Anderson.

The following Monday, Seifert received a call from Countrywide. The company wasn't pleased.

Spokeswoman Kris Yamamoto describes the protest as unreasonable. "Rather than making any contact with appropriate Countrywide corporate officials, [ESOP] went to the neighborhood of a Countrywide employee," Yamamoto says. "Had they made an effort to discuss their concerns with Countrywide, they would have learned that they didn't have complete and correct facts."

Yamamoto claims that only 16 percent of Countrywide's 2004 loans were made in low-moderate income communities, and that only 10 percent of loans were high-cost.

She also insists that broker fraud is "negligible" in the Cleveland market. She doesn't address the issue of discriminatory lending.

Still, Countrywide will send a public-affairs official to talk to the nonprofit. "We'll talk to them," Johnson says. "But we aren't gonna quit until we get access to the man who can actually do something about these loans."

Coming from a group known to bomb an executive's cell phone with calls at 3 a.m., it's not an idle threat. As Johnson says with relish, "I think it's time for another hit."

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