Foreclosure Madness

Community organizers work to find solutions to keep people in their homes

When Dolores Fair talks about the possibility of being kicked out of her house, she stops for a moment in thought, as if she wants to make sure the gravity of the situation is understood.

"I think there is a perception out there that people who are dealing with foreclosures are lazy, and don't want to make payments," Fair said. "But these past 17 years, I've been working. I had been making payments."

Fair was one of four people close to foreclosure who spoke at a recent ACORN (Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now) meeting to address foreclosures in Pima County. According to organizers, the goal of the Feb. 12 meeting was to draw attention to the need for a foreclosure moratorium in Pima County, and to get the word out to people about to lose their homes that, if necessary, they can stay put as an act of civil disobedience.

Fair said she bought her house 17 years ago after moving to Tucson, a year after her husband's death. Part of the Desert Storm veteran's life insurance went toward a down payment on the house, offering a fresh start for his wife and their two sons. Fair also went back to school and got a master's degree in counseling.

Her youngest son was diagnosed with valley fever on Sept. 23, 2006, and spent the next 10 months in a Phoenix rehabilitation facility.

During rehab, Fair said, she lived in Phoenix so she could be by her son's side. While there, a friend told her she saw Fair's name on a foreclosure list.

"I think I was pretty much in shock when I first saw my son in the hospital, and the condition he was in. I didn't really think about my bills. I was more like, 'What, he's going to die?" Fair said. "I called my original lender first and told them I was in the middle of a crisis. And that's when my friend told me about this broker."

Fair called the local broker in February 2007. They decided to refinance the house in order for her to keep it and to provide some income from the almost $70,000 in equity she had. She said she needed the extra cash to support her family.

"The lender never met me. We did it all by fax and phone. I didn't realize until later that I wasn't really paying attention," Fair said.

Eventually, Fair discovered the terms of the new loan, among other things, increased her monthly payment from $625 a month to $1,625. When she signed the paperwork, she said, she didn't realize what she was getting herself into.

For three months, Fair said, she was able to save some money and make payments while she had a job as a therapist. Then she was laid off.

Fair said the private lender refused to work with her and eventually began foreclosure proceedings. Fair was able to protect her house by filing for bankruptcy, which allowed her to make payments to the lender every two weeks. Fair said she now only has enough money for two more house payments; meanwhile, she continues to look for a job.

According to the terms of her bankruptcy, Fair said, if she misses one payment, the house automatically goes into foreclosure--which is likely to happen next month.

"I have too much invested," Fair said regarding the 17 years of payments she has already made on the house.

According to ACORN local lead organizer Kristy Theilen, the Tucson fight against foreclosures was inspired by Ohio Congresswoman Marcy Kaptur, who advised her constituents in early February to stay put and squat--what ACORN also calls homesteading. ACORN is recruiting volunteers to help people who refuse to leave, either at the house or on the courthouse steps during foreclosure auctions.

What local ACORN organizers really want, however, is a foreclosure moratorium in Pima County. In Illinois' Cook County, the sheriff for a period refused to do foreclosure evictions--a move criticized by bankers as illegal. In Allegheny County in Pennsylvania, all foreclosures are now placed in a county program, and banks are forced to help.

Theilen said ACORN turned to the Tucson City Council and the Pima County Board of Supervisors to find out what could be done in Pima County. She learned that getting a foreclosure moratorium going in Pima County would be a challenge, because the Sheriff's Department, which answers to the supervisors, does not participate in the foreclosure process. Instead, constables with the Pima County Justice Court are responsible for foreclosures, and they answer to judges. Therefore, any kind of moratorium would need to begin with the Legislature, Theilen said.

Enter County Supervisor Ramón Valadez. Theilen credits him with helping to draft a bill, HB 2545, and open doors for it in Phoenix. Theilen also met with Supervisor Richard Elías and Tucson City Councilwoman Nina Trasoff, who also attended the Feb. 12 meeting.

The bill, if passed, would require all banks to automatically enter mediation rather than go into foreclosure. It isn't expected to be assigned to a committee until early March.

"Some legislators continue to think this is about people who took out good loans and bad loans, not that they took out loans with an industry that convinced them they could pay for them," Theilen said. "Everyone suffers with foreclosures. Neighborhoods suffer. Good people or bad people, it doesn't matter; it's really about how this is affecting all of us. It's not a partisan issue."

Fair wonders if relief will come in time. She also wonders if the bill, even if it somehow passed, would be able to help someone like her, since the broker secured her loan through a private lender and not a bank.

"Will they be included in this new bill?" she wonders. "I'm really hoping there will be some kind of clause for not just banks, but private lenders. Still, it's a start. Maybe we can finally get somewhere."

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