Banks driving people to 'alcoholism and suicide'

Mon, Jul 4, 2011, 01:00

A meeting on the crisis facing debtors heard many tales of suffering, writes JAMIE SMYTH

JOHN BYRNE’s home in Tullycanna, Co Wexford, has been in his family for more than 50 years. His grandmother was born and raised in the house and her father before her.

But Byrne, a carpenter struggling to make ends meet in the recession, and his mother are fighting a legal battle with one of the State’s biggest subprime mortgage lenders to try to keep the family home.

“My wife and I have tried everything to keep the house in our family. We went to the lender and offered to pay €800 a month for 40 years. It is all we can pay. They wouldn’t listen and last November the High Court granted a repossession order,” he says.

Byrne is one of an estimated 60,000 people in mortgage arrears in Ireland.

At a public meeting in Dublin yesterday addressing the evolving mortgage crisis, he broke down as he described how his father, an alcoholic, drank himself to death a few years after remortgaging the family home to pay for repairs.

“The banks are driving people to alcoholism, suicide and you name it,” says Byrne, who has not been able to pay the mortgage since his father got sick in 2008 and went into hospital.

His father died in April 2009 owing more than €300,000 and it appears, although this may be disputed in court, there was no life assurance policy in place.

“I just can’t understand why they granted the mortgage to my father in the first place,” he says.

For now Byrne is still living in the family home but under a constant threat of eviction.

Byrne was one of more than 100 people at the meeting, which was organised by the United Left Alliance, each with their own story of debt and repossession.

Joe Bray, a 60-year-old man who got sick in 2006 and has been surviving ever since on disability allowance, says he was evicted from his home last month and forced to spend several nights sleeping in the back of a jeep.

“I owe about €144,000,” says Bray, who admits he made a big mistake by hiding successive letters from the subprime lender Start Mortgages from his wife: “The first my wife knew about the mortgage arrears was when the sheriff turned up at the door.”

Bray, who admits to having literacy problems, is now living in a flat in Co Cork, which is paid for by social welfare. He is now separated from his wife.

Many people at the meeting did not want their names published but several couples spoke about the huge stress that mortgage debt is causing for their families.

“I work in Bus Éireann and my take-home pay has been cut by a third. I knew I was going to be in trouble and tried to contact Bank of Ireland to see what could be done . . . but a staff member told me nobody had time to talk to customers until a first default had occurred.

“We’re now €10,000 in arrears,” says one man.

He says he bought his house at the height of the boom in 2006 and was in negative equity of at least €100,000.

“We’re told lenders will help you but in reality they don’t. I asked to have the mortgage term extended but they refused,” he says.

Another man working in the building trade says he separated from his wife a few years ago and had bought another house.

He is in mortgage arrears of €6,000 and the house is now worth €100,000 less than he paid for it.

“My wages are down 50 per cent and it is difficult to meet the mortgage payments,” he says.

Joan Collins TD, a member of the United Left Alliance, says it is a crazy situation to put people out of their family homes and then have the State pay people’s rent.

“This is a throwback to the 1800s when absentee landlords threw people out of their homes . . . The situation will get worse this week when interest rates go up again,” she says.

“Hundreds of thousands of people are struggling with debts they can’t sustain while bankers, brokers and solicitors are still partying.”