Franklin Torres had been paying off his bank loans regularly. But on July 19, while he was in Ecuador visiting his family, he received notification that Flushing Savings Bank was foreclosing his property and placing it on auction the following day.
Torres, who had made around $430,000 in mortgage payments for his property as of June, was among a group of approximately 20 Queens residents who staged a demonstration Monday outside the Forest Hills branch of Flushing Savings Bank, accusing it of “corrupt and predatory practices,” including improper foreclosures. The group staged a similar protest outside a branch in Flushing a week earlier.
The newly formed group, Queens Residents Against Flushing Savings Bank, chanted slogans like “Give us our homes back,” held large placards, blew party blowers, and handed out leaflets to passersby to warn and identify residents who have been negatively impacted by the bank’s alleged bad faith practices.
Flushing Savings said in an emailed statement that it “does not respond publicly to comments regarding its customers or their relationships.”
“As a federally chartered savings bank, we comply with all applicable laws and regulations including the Equal Credit Opportunity Act and Fair Lending practices,” the statement read. “Flushing Savings Bank makes every reasonable effort available to establish workout plans to help borrowers avoid the foreclosure process and maintain ownership of their property.”
In June, state Attorney General Eric Schneiderman proposed new legislation, the Foreclosure Fraud Prevention Act, which would impose tough new criminal penalties that include jail time for those who knowingly authorize, prepare, execute or offer for filing false documents in a pending or prospective residential foreclosure action.
The group’s leaflets charged that Flushing Savings Bank “received $70 million in public bailout monies” but “continued business as usual foreclosing and taking homes away from hardworking New Yorkers.”
The group’s van was plastered on all sides with posters that read “Boycott Flushing Savings Bank,” “FSB = Bankster,” and “Takes Taxpayer Bailout $$, then takes people’s homes.”
Its website was formally unveiled Monday. It included ways to complain against banks, and events and mobilization schedules.
“When people lose their homes, they lose their savings. But nobody’s doing anything,” said Bill Struhs, the group’s coordinator.
With the demonstrations, leafleting and the website, however, awareness has been raised, and Struhs said many people who’ve had their homes foreclosed upon called him for help.
“So far, I’ve received 60 requests since we started one and a half weeks ago,” he said.
At the demonstration Monday, Torres shared his experience dealing with the bank with people who gathered around, their curiosity sparked by the din.
“I went back to Ecuador to see my wife and children in June, and the bank suddenly foreclosed my property for no reason,” he said. “I went to court to stop the sale, and I won the case.”
But despite his legal victory in August, Flushing Savings Bank refused to accept further payments from Torres.
“They returned my checks. They don’t want to talk to me,” he said. “They just want my property. What do I have to do now?”
Torres took out a $1.65 million loan for his property in Corona in June 2008, signing an agreement and placing a deposit of $100,000. The sum was to be paid back with interest when Torres obtained a final certificate of occupancy for the property, and the property was fully occupied and rented out within six months.
“But they did not return me my money,” he said.
Torres admitted that he was behind by “two or three payments” in Sep. 2009, and that’s when the foreclosures began.
But under the agreement that he signed, the deposit can be used to make mortgage payments in the event of a default.
“They were supposed to use the money but they only used it for two out of the three payments,” he said. “They deliberately kept me behind by one payment. But in any case, I knew I needed to be current, so in Dec. 2010, I paid off the amounts I owed.”
“Bottom line is, I was current until June. And then in July, they tried to sell my property,” he said.
Another protester, Ramon Quiroz, who had his property foreclosed by U.S. Bank, said his bank “falsified documents.”
“I have paid everything in two years — the full $435,000. I have the title to my name. But they said I owe them money and they wanted to take my home,” he fumed. “I’ve been fighting since October 2007. My case is now at the U.S. Court of Appeals. I’m going after them. They’ve got to compensate all the damage they caused to me.”
Several customers who walked out of Flushing Savings Bank said they were unaware of the issues the protesters were raising.
“You should go to the headquarters and the big banks. There’s no point boycotting this small branch here, right?” said one man who declined to be named.
To that, Struhs said this was only the start.
“Next Monday, we will go to four banks in Queens,” he said. “If you can do something, you must do it, and believe in it.”
The group dispersed as quickly as it had gathered. In less than 90 minutes, the drama was over, leaving only 20-year-old Carlos Mendez, who cut a lonesome figure in the mid-afternoon sun as he continued giving out the fliers.
Mendez, who rents the apartment in question from Torres, said he and his family will have to move out if the property gets foreclosed.
“I just wanted to help him out,” he said simply.
He shrugged smilingly as he looked left and right, as if pre-empting the question that was coming his way.
“I’ll be here till 2.”