Faces of foreclosure

February 4, 2008 8:56:40 PM PST
In Chicago and throughout the country, people are losing their homes in record numbers. It's a crisis that in one way or another impacts all of us.

We often look at the foreclosure mess through a macro lens - what's its impact on the economy? But what of the individual who's losing a home? Where do they go? What does it mean to their community?

There are unscrupulous lenders and brokers, but for some homeowners there has also been bad timing, bad luck, and yes, bad judgment.

During Sunday service at the Neighborhood United Methodist in Maywood, Pastor Jacques Conway asks his congregation "How many of you know someone going through foreclosure?" Slowly, people stand.

"It's the kind of problem people don't want to talk about. It's the kind of problem people feel embarrassed about," said Conway.

On Maywood's 19th Avenue, within several blocks of the church, there are fourteen homes in foreclosure. Dorothy Smith's is one of them.

"I'm hoping I can save it, 'cause it's all I got," she said.

Smith is 70. She and her late husband bought the house more than 40 years ago and raised their family here. Eight years ago, when Smith and her husband were both working, they took out a second loan for home improvements. But he passed away. And she retired with an adjustable rate mortgage that jumped beyond her ability to pay.

"A lot of this is my fault, and a lot of this is that I couldn't meet, you know, my responsibility," she said.

But loans once there for the taking, Smith said, are now gone. Her refinancing efforts have failed. In the last year in Maywood alone, there have been more than 400 foreclosures. That hammers property values, hurts business, schools and churches, and invites crime.

"It's almost to a point where the walls are falling in all around us," said Conway.

Fifty miles away in Lake Villa, the walls are falling in around Tammy Walsh, a single mom with three sons who lost her job at a pet store and is now about to lose her home.

"You can't sleep. You don't want to eat. It's just not fair what's happening to everyone," she said.

In September, Walsh's house payment jumped from $1,000 to more than $1,400. She didn't know hers was an adjustable rate mortgage. She acknowledges she should have but said her broker told her it was a fixed rate, and she believed him.

"Looking at 2,000 people who called us for foreclosure prevention assistance in 2007, probably half of them didn't realize they were getting into an adjustable rate mortgage," said Michael van Zalingen, Neighborhood Housing Services of Chicago.

The non-profit Neighborhood Housing Services of Chicago counsels people facing foreclosure, and what they find most problematic is that homeowners quite often don't reach out for help until after they've missed four to six payments, and by then, it may be too late.

In 2006 in Chicago alone, there were nearly 2,700 complete foreclosures. By 2008, van Zalingen estimates 9,000 to 10,000.

"Where you gonna go? I don't know. I have no idea. I can't rent a place because my credit is bad because of my mortgage payments," said Cindy Berisford, who is facing foreclosure.

Berisford is another single mom who's lost her job, and most probably soon her house. She lives, by coincidence, right across the street from Tammy Walsh, and it was only fairly recently that each learned of the other's predicament. They and Dorothy Smith are three faces of foreclosure. They acknowledge making mistakes but also feel their good faith efforts to save their homes have been judged not good enough.

"You feel so hopeless. You look up and say God please, give me something here," said Walsh.

Late last week, Walsh got some encouraging news. The scheduled auction of her home set for this Thursday has been put off. Her lender is trying to re-work her mortgage.

Berisford's home is set to be auctioned, but there's no date yet. And unless she is successful with an 11th hour legal motion, Smith will likely have to leave her home of 43 years in the next 90 days.