At 69, retired nurse Lucinda Brown uses Social Security and a modest savings to help support extended family, including three grandchildren. Some months she barely makes the rent. But Brown’s not worried about herself. She’s worried about Rocket Mortgage. “The Lord tells us to care for the neediest first,” she says.
On a recent morning, Brown could be found hosting a Kool-Aid stand outside her Collinwood home. Her fundraiser was inspired by the Cleveland City Council, which gave Rocket a $975,000 welfare package
earlier this month. The $40 billion company
wants to expand its Cleveland operations, yet its meager earnings leave it unable to stand on its own two feet.
The move was hailed as the progressive politics voters fought so hard for during the last election – a return to kindness, charity, a grace toward others, while still putting large corporations first. Councilman Joe Jones called it "Christmas in February." Lucinda Brown distilled her joy to one word: “Hallelujah!”
The city’s poor have been ravaged by the Covid epidemic. Unemployment is rampant. Food banks are short supplies and volunteers to face a roaring demand. But none of this compares to the plight of Rocket, which has been throttled by tragedy.
In November, the firm’s parent, Rocket Companies, reported that third quarter revenue was up just 163 percent
. It may have been a record, but it also spoke of perils to come.
“I haven’t slept in a week,” says Brown. “I can’t stop worrying about fourth quarter earnings. What if they’re only up 137 percent, missing analysts’ targets? The market will kill them.”
That fear is echoed by Joe Kalchik. He’s a single dad whose daughter has cerebral palsy. Crushing medical bills have forced them to survive off ketchup and white bread since fall. Though difficult, he knows his situation can’t compare with the hardship facing Rocket owner Dan Gilbert.
“It’s heartbreaking,” Kalchik says. “He’s only what? Like the 31st richest guy in the world
? Can you imagine the psychological trauma of never being able to catch the Walmart heirs?”
Neighbor Mary Washington agrees. Ten years ago, she was a rising bank manager. Then a car accident left her wheelchair bound and unable to work, followed by a long fight for disability. Her Slavic Village home shows the signatures of extreme poverty. A portion of the roof has collapsed, leaving Washington confined to a small bedroom. But she refuses to complain.
Instead, she launched a one-woman phone bank, calling fellow Clevelanders to raise money for Rocket. Still, disappointment shadows her face. Months of dialing have managed to summon just $17 and one donor’s prized recipe for cabbage pierogis. Yet if America is to lift all boats by hoisting the largest first, “every little bit helps.”
Talk to Cleveland’s poor, and that commitment is universal, with the council as their shepherd. They point to city aid to the Wolstein Group’s development on the East Bank of the Flats. In December, his company was given a pass on non-school property taxes until 2071
. Though 50 years may be a tight window to rise to rise from the throes of public assistance, it sent a clear message to Cleveland’s poor: Your dreams of building a boutique hotel are not in vain.
On a recent morning, 11-year-old Little Jimmy could be found scavenging for scrap metal under a bridge. His family is homeless. His mom can’t afford to buy him a jacket. Yet he considers himself blessed. He’s only been hospitalized for hypothermia twice this winter.
When Little Jimmy heard of Rocket’s troubles, he organized a scrapping crew among the kids at the shelter. They hide their treasures under this bridge, away from the prying eyes of a rival crew for the Wolstein Group. If they can find a discarded wheelbarrow, they plan to deliver their bounty to Rocket’s downtown offices. They’ll ask for nothing in return, save for a brief moment in a warm building.