The dozen men and women sat in a darkened room at a sprawling Aztec pyramid-shaped Mexican restaurant in Phoenix, parrots hanging from the ceiling, recounting the stories of their personal ordeals.
The gathering had all the hallmarks of a group-therapy session. But it was not a meeting for recovering alcoholics or victims of domestic violence. It was a meeting for survivors – and wannabe survivors – of the housing market crash.
“I’ve been searching for a local group like this for so long – it’s meant to be,” said Kathi Sharpe, a 53-year-old substitute teacher and single mother-of-five, attending her first meeting.
After falling victim to a dodgy mortgage broker, she has been fighting the system – and homelessness – for a decade, but she had been fighting it alone, until now.
The weekly meetings are the work of Darrell Blomberg, a self-styled “foreclosure strategist” who has not paid his own mortgage for 48 months. The former real estate agent is now helping other distressed Phoenix homeowners stay in their houses.
Data from lenders show the number of delinquent mortgages and home foreclosures in the state is falling steadily. Still, one in 325 Arizona homes received a foreclosure notice in January, compared with a national ratio of one in 624, according to RealtyTrac, the property statistics company.
Whatever mild signs of improvement there may be in the broader US economy the property market remains one of its weak spots in a year when the state of the economy is dominating the political debate.
In Arizona, which on Tuesday holds its primary in the Republican presidential nomination contest, the continuing housing crisis has been held up by visiting candidates as one of President Barack Obama’s “failures” in turning around the economy, even if the housing bubble burst under the previous Republican president, George W. Bush.
People in Phoenix, which experienced one of the biggest drops in house prices in the nation – down 58 per cent from the peak in mid-2006 – scoff at the idea the situation is getting better.
Mr Blomberg found himself facing foreclosure after Countrywide Financial, the troubled mortgage lender, foreclosed on four houses he was trying to sell, a move that robbed him of his income.
He missed two months’ payments but when he tried to catch up, the lender’s terms were so bad that he “decided to push it a little bit”.
“I noticed that the notary had not dated her signature and I discovered that this makes a massive difference,” Mr Blomberg said.
By continuing to spot administrative errors and by writing challenging letters, he has managed to stave off a trustee sale of his house three times and still has not made any mortgage payments.
He knows he is fighting a losing battle – and estimates he will probably end up owing $370,000 on his $133,000 house. “My goal is to get a loan modification but I’ve been such a curmudgeon about this, they are just going to get me out of the house,” he said.
For Mr Blomberg this is now about more than the roof over his head. It has become a crusade.
“I’m taking a stand. If you want my house, you have to follow the law,” he said.
Bank of America said it had made multiple attempts to review Mr Blomberg’s case for a modification over the years but he had not responded to requests to supply documentation.
Don Blount, a mortgage broker whose business collapsed with the housing market, started a similar group, the Arizona Foreclosure Recovery Group, last May but is trying to help distressed homeowners in a different way.
Some owners whose houses were foreclosed upon at the bottom of the crash, in 2008 and 2009, are now becoming eligible to requalify for Federal Housing Administration loans.
“There’s a high degree of frustration – none of this stuff has really worked,” Mr Blount, who operates in upscale Scottsdale, says of the government’s efforts to fix the housing market crisis through programmes such as the two versions of the Home Affordable Refinance Programme. “Most people feel like the banks are still profiting from foreclosures.”
Rob Estes, who is fighting the foreclosure of his Phoenix house, is chastened.
“I played the game of cops and robbers,” said Mr Estes, who has managed to stay in his house, thanks to Mr Blomberg’s help.
“Don’t borrow money,” he shrugs after attending one of Mr Blomberg’s weekly meeting. “That’s what I’ve gotten out of all of this.”