As I looked out at the audience of housing counselors and real-estate agents, I was afraid I might tear up.
Not the typical response for someone speaking at a Federal Reserve Bank meeting. But this wasn't a typical group.
More than 100 people gathered in downtown Phoenix on Thursday to hear an update on metro Phoenix's housing market. As I saw their faces, I remembered so many others.
The room was full of people who so valiantly tried to help other people keep their houses. I stopped thinking about my presentation and began to think about the many people who lost Valley houses to foreclosure during the crash. I couldn't help it.
I had no idea these feelings would resurface when the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco asked me a few months ago to give the keynote about the Arizona housing market at its Phoenix affordable housing event.
I was honored and happy to do it. I was prepared to explain metro Phoenix's housing market recovery so far.
But I didn't expect the overwhelming emotions of talking to that audience, a group of housing crusaders who took jobs to help people buy homes but spent 2008-2012 fighting a foreclosure crisis not seen since the Great Depression. Metro Phoenix led the U.S. for the highest rate of foreclosures and biggest plummet in home prices during a few of those years.
The carnage left by the housing bust was more than lost homes.
I remembered one housing counselor in the room who had worked tirelessly over a weekend to help a man losing a house in Chandler to foreclosure find homes for almost 15 cats and dogs. Most of the pets came from the man's former neighbors who lost houses to foreclosure and couldn't take the animals with them.
"It was a horrible time during the crash," said Patricia Garcia Duarte, CEO of the Arizona housing non-profit Trellis. "There are so many sad stories from that time."
She told me Thursday that she remembered a man who lost his house to foreclosure because a lender didn't approve his loan modification in time.
Sheila Harris, founder and former director of the Arizona Housing Department, had several nightmarish memories of the crash. One of the worst was from Bank of America's efforts to supposedly help its borrowers with loan modifications.
The lender was accused of giving struggling homeowners a non-working fax number to send their information for a loan modification, losing customers paperwork multiple times, approving loan modifications, and then still foreclosing and more. Then Arizona Attorney General Terry Goddard filed a lawsuit against Bank of America accusing the bank of violating the state's consumer fraud laws.
"It was a bad time for so many," Harris told me Thursday morning. "We all are working to never see that happen again."
Jeff Adams is one of the Bank of America customers who filed a complaint with the Arizona attorney general in 2010. He had requested a modification on the mortgage for his Scottsdale home early in early 2009; by October, Bank of America had lost his paperwork four times, but his loan application was finally approved.
Then in early 2010, Adams received a foreclosure notice despite making his modified payments on time. Adams called Bank of America and said he was told to keep making his payments and ignore the foreclosure notice. In July, someone from Fannie Mae knocked at his door and told him to move out because the mortgage company had foreclosed on it. Adams was able to fight and have the foreclosure canceled because no one had bought his home through the foreclosure auction.
"I felt like I was housejacked," Adams told me in late 2010. "I am making my payments but am still afraid that another foreclosure notice might come in the mail or at my door."
Bank of America later settled with Arizona a few years later.
Most housing counselors are trained to help people save money, get their finances in order and buy homes they can afford. But many at the Federal Reserve meeting had to quickly learn how to negotiate with lenders to help homeowners stay in their houses.
"Loan modifications and lender requirements were changing so fast during the crash, it was really difficult to keep up," Garcia Duarte said.
During the crash, Phoenix housing counselor Darina Tolano's phone rang at least 50 times a day. Almost all of the calls were homeowners facing foreclosure.
She had to console them, while asking tough questions about their finances and personal lives. She then had to call lenders multiple times to find someone who could help those homeowners.
It's a stressful job that didn't pay as much as her former position with a Valley mortgage lender that shut down. Unfortunately, her list of clients grew rapidly, and Tolano knew she couldn't save them all.
"It can be overwhelming," Tolano told me then. "I really feel what these families are going through. I am in the middle."
Arizona housing counselors' jobs changed so dramatically that many went to a boot camp to learn how to navigate the foreclosure process and get loan modifications done. In 2009, I went to one of the five-day camps, which was held in Casa Grande. Counselors from across the state attended.
It was intense.
One housing counselor at the boot camp said she couldn't sleep anymore because she was so worried about the many homeowners she just couldn't help. And that was at the beginning of the crash.
"Foreclosure counselors are under so much pressure," Garcia Duarte told me then. "It's a tough job. Housing counselors have become many homeowners' last hope."
I remember when housing counselor Joann Hauger referred a school teacher to me in late 2009. The teacher was trying to find a way to raise money to buy groceries for a growing number of the students at her west Phoenix elementary school whose families were losing homes to foreclosure. She thought I might know of a non-profit that could help.
Unfortunately, I didn't. But we met at a Safeway that weekend, and I was able to give her more than $500 that my friends and co-workers had readily volunteered when they heard what the dedicated teacher was trying to do.
Later, she and her husband almost lost their house to foreclosure, but were able to get a loan modification. Unfortunately, I lost touch with her, but remember well her efforts during a truly horrible time.
Hauger, who was executive director of Community Housing Resources of Arizona for 26 years before recently retiring, was trying to tap every resource she could to help people losing homes to foreclosure then. I referred many struggling homeowners to her and other counselors during the crash. She referred some to me.
"It was such a devastating time for so many people. It's hard to remember all the people who needed help," she told me. "Thinking back, it was so important that Arizona's housing advocates came together so quickly early on in the crash. I think because of that we were able to help more people."
I didn't belabor the housing boom and crash when I spoke to the Federal Reserve group on Thursday. I didn't need to because those attending were all on the front lines of it.
I focused on the recovery.
Some of the signs of recovery that I shared in the speech:
At the end, I looked at the group and thanked them because the Valley's housing market wouldn't have recovered as fast as it has without their tireless efforts to help so many homeowners.
Now that prices are rising again, Harris and Garcia Duarte said finding affordable housing for people in Arizona is again their biggest concern.
As I was leaving, a woman from the audience stopped to thank me. I thanked her for being there and listening to my long presentation. She explained she was thanking me for something else.
She had heard me speak at a housing event in 2009, during the dark times. She and her husband had bought a Phoenix home the year before, were already underwater and very worried.
She reminded me that I had told the group the housing market would get worse before it got better. I vaguely remember getting some boos from the crowd on that one. But then she said I told them that their home values would likely recover around 2015. I had no crystal ball. I was sharing information from listening to smart people — people who were watching foreclosures, short sales, home prices and delinquent mortgages daily.
The woman told me I was right. She and her husband stayed in the house. Now, it's worth $20,000 more than they owe on their mortgage, she said.
I hugged her and said she had made my day.
And as I walked out of the meeting, I started to tear up again.