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Petworth’s black middle class is losing ground, row house by row house.
Illustration by Christiane Grauert
Last year, the owner of a row house on the 400 block of Ingraham Street NW in Petworth received a threat of foreclosure on a delinquent mortgage.
A neighbor on the block has only a sketch of the vacant home’s story: An elderly father died. A son bought out the other relatives who had inherited shares of the house. Aspiring to go into business as an electrician like his father, the son borrowed against the equity. He was hampered by addictions, his business failed, and the foreclosure notice arrived.
“He’s in Florida somewhere,” says the neighbor.
Today, the home sits empty, with its lights on, the blinds drawn, and a sticker on the door ordering the owner to “Contact Inspector Liggins Immediately.”
Two other families on the block received notices of foreclosure last year. The family directly across the street from the vacant property is still living there. At the end of that row of houses, on the corner, the family sold to a young white couple mere days before the foreclosure auction and then purchased another house a couple of blocks away.
Three blocks to the northeast, on Missouri Avenue, a woman answers the door at a home that fell into foreclosure last year. A business card is slipped to her through the mail slot, but she doesn’t open the screen. Told about the many foreclosures in Petworth, she says she probably knows why. “This is a high drug area,” she explains through the screen, turning her head toward the living room, where a man is watching TV. “They just don’t care.”
Now down Kansas Avenue, to the 600 block of Emerson Street: “DANGER” reads the orange sticker on the door of a foreclosed home, dated March 28. “The water heater has been drained. Do not turn on utilities. PROPERTY HAS BEEN WINTERIZED.” The doorknob is missing, and someone has stuffed store coupons into the hole.
Three blocks south, on the 500 block of Crittenden Street, a new family has moved into a corner house that was foreclosed on last year; they couldn’t afford to buy in Mount Pleasant. There were two other foreclosures on this block last year.
Now around Sherman Circle and down the steep hill of 8th Street: An unemployed truck driver on the 4700 block says he doesn’t know anything about the foreclosures, or what happened to the woman who until recently lived next door. This summer, he witnessed federal marshals breaking down the door to her house and hauling all her belongings to the curb to be picked at by neighbors. But the truck driver has trouble remembering her name, let alone her circumstances. City records say it was foreclosure. He says that he lost his own home, in Shaw, to foreclosure 10 years ago.
North on 8th, past three foreclosures on Delafield Place, to the 700 block of Hamilton: Salvador Gonzalez, a Guatemalan carpenter, couldn’t tell you what happened at the foreclosed home next to him, where the roses are now 8 feet high. And he doesn’t know what happened to the woman he says left there six months ago. But he can say that he hasn’t found work in eight months, his wife’s salary as a janitor at the Pentagon isn’t enough, and they recently missed two mortgage payments.
Two blocks west of Gonzalez on Hamilton, a grandmother has declared personal bankruptcy to forestall foreclosure. “I was just trying to keep the house up,” she says. “That costs. I had to do the kitchen over again, the bathroom. Just maintenance.” So she refinanced the house. “When I signed up, they gave me more than I really asked for,” she says, and so the loan—loaded with fees—was far costlier than she’d bargained for. She fell into delinquency and now pays $928 towards her mortgage and $661 in back payments every month. “You think you’re on top at one time and then something comes up where you fall back down. I guess you’d call it mismanagement of funds. My father always took care of things. When he died, that left me.” Recently she gave in to her weary nerves and visited relatives in South Carolina. Crossing the Potomac, she says, it was as if all her problems “just jumped in the river.”
Once a white working-class neighborhood by virtue of legal segregation, Petworth has been predominantly African-American since the ’60s, the stable middle of Washington’s black middle class for several generations. Relentlessly residential, it is a neighborhood dense with ranks of row houses, a virtual dormitory for current and retired government workers, and also home to cabdrivers and construction workers. But the tight weave of rows has loosened: The foreclosures reveal a Petworth that has become a frayed version of its old, secure self.
A high rate of homeownership has always been Petworth’s pride, a mark of its fiscal health. Sixty percent of the households here are owner-occupied, only slightly less than the national average, compared with only 40 percent citywide. And yet scores of Petworth homes fell into foreclosure last year, among the highest concentrations in the city.
A recent study by AARP District of Columbia of foreclosure notices filed at the D.C. Recorder of Deeds in 2001 provides a snapshot of foreclosures in the area: Last year, 94 households received threats of foreclosure in the three census tracts that envelop North Petworth and Brightwood Park, Petworth’s smaller neighbor to the north. In one year, as many as 3 percent of all owner-occupied homes in this area fell into foreclosure at a time when D.C. foreclosures—2 percent, according to the same calculation—are slowly dropping from a historic high. (Last year, there were more than 2,000 residential foreclosure notices issued District-wide.)
Using a different method, the Mortgage Bankers Association of America determined that nationwide last year a little more than 1 percent of all outstanding mortgages were in some stage of foreclosure, the highest since it started measuring foreclosures 30 years ago. The recession and attendant unemployment are to blame, says the association.
But the problem extends beyond the current business cycle. Substance abuse is behind many delinquencies in Petworth. And the most significant cause of increased foreclosures may be the predatory mortgage lending practices of some companies who, in the ’90s, flooded minority neighborhoods with bad loans, ticking time bombs that exploded within a few years of origination. The advent of predatory lending and the increase in foreclosures prompted the D.C. Council to introduce a bill this fall that would change the foreclosure law for the first time in nearly a century. The bill would make foreclosure a quasi-judicial proceeding, giving borrowers who may have been defrauded a chance to make their case.
There is a happy version of Petworth, a second-tier target of gentrification, a place where longtime homeowners are finally seeing their investments pay off as property values rise and new families work on shaping the neighborhood into the next Mount Pleasant or Logan Circle. Home sales are vaulting the $200,000 bar thanks to a new Metro station and the recent District-wide real-estate boom. Most empty houses are quickly purchased and renovated. From the outside, it might appear like the turning of soil or the changing of seasons, something natural and cyclical.
That story doesn’t usually find space to mention foreclosures, but then again, they’re sometimes hard to see.
In the decade after World War I, developers built the Petworth rows just east of what is now Georgia Avenue on what was then hilly farmland, marketing the neighborhood as a “suburb” of downtown Washington. Along the rows, each attached house is roomy and solid, many with 13-inch party walls and heavy red oak floors. Few Petworth homes go without the civilizing grace of a sheltered porch. Cheek-to-jowl porch fronts form colonnades stretching full city blocks, and behind these colonnades run clear corridors. Unless an introverted homeowner encloses his porch with blinds or metal siding, this is where the traffic of neighborhood conversation flows. When a row of houses ascends an incline, it’s as if each porch were a car in a Ferris wheel, suspended slightly above its neighbor inches away, everyone on the same ride.
With lives packed so close, it would seem hard not to be in one another’s business, and yet no one seems to realize that foreclosures are becoming as common in this once steady neighborhood as Astroturf stoops. When queried, people sometimes know the fate of their erstwhile neighbors, but often they have no clue, of either the foreclosure or where those neighbors have disappeared to. More often than not, the conversation turns to their own problems.
One quick look around makes clear that Petworth isn’t troubled Trinidad, but it’s not Tenleytown, either. Kennedy Street, Petworth’s unofficial northern border, is a commercial strip consisting of funeral homes, a check-cashing joint, liquor stores, and also a contractor’s sign announcing in red letters “We buy properties!” Other signs in the neighborhood: “Sell your house in 9 days!” “We buy used…houses!” And at the intersection of Allison and 4th, and again at Webster and 7th, is the exclamation “Beat Forclosure!” belonging to Kensington-based Advantage Homebuyers. (The advantage of Advantage may be overstated—company president David Parreco says his solutions don’t usually involve the owner’s keeping the house.)
Optimistic advertisements notwithstanding, foreclosure is an unqualified calamity. In Petworth, it often happens when an older parent dies, bequeathing a home to children or grandchildren who can’t keep up remaining mortgage payments—or maybe the beneficiaries lack the savvy to sell the property to maximum advantage. Or one of two wage earners loses a job and a family falls into delinquency. Or a retiree on a fixed income is lured by an unscrupulous lender into a deceptively high-cost refinance loan and loses a house in an attempt to invest a few thousand dollars into fixing it up.
Home equity, earned over decades of regular payments, was to be one generation’s legacy to another, and the recent property-value spike should have been a bonus for years of diligence. Instead, equity is often squandered, stripped, or bartered away in a moment of acute financial distress—and a part of Petworth that only time can buy is permanently lost.
“You pull down the blinds.”
Monica Gant lost her first home, on Riggs Road in Northeast, in 1992. Back then she was an EMT with D.C. Emergency Medical Services—a stressful job, but one that paid well. And yet, that year, she stopped making her mortgage payments. She was depressed, she says, and she simply didn’t care about the consequences of shutting herself off from life and letting all the bills go unpaid. Gant eventually filed for personal bankruptcy. She lost the home to foreclosure anyway—a
home where she had lived since 1976 and an investment in which $41,500 had already been paid down.
In the late ’90s, Gant made a second, ultimately failed attempt at homeownership. In 1998, she was out of work, receiving disability payments for a back injury sustained on the job. (Gant also suffers from lupus, an autoimmune disease that inflames her joints, making it harder to walk.) Her 92-year-old grandmother, though, was dying, and Gant moved from a house she was renting in Upper Marlboro to her grandmother’s place in Petworth, at 603 Hamilton St., to help with her care. When her grandmother died of heart disease a few months later, Gant succumbed to depression again.
Her condition had deep roots. She claims to have suffered abuse at the hands of an ex-husband and, as a child, by a mother who used an extension cord as a whip. When Gant would try to escape her mother’s wrath by hiding under the bed, her mother would flush her out with scalding water.
But it was only after watching a TV news segment about Mental Health Month in 2001 that Gant would go to a clinic and, at age 51, be diagnosed with clinical depression. “We call it the blues—we don’t call it depression,” she says. “You just think things aren’t going right.”
“You know that tunnel at Rock Creek Park? When you get closer to the tunnel, it gets darker and darker and darker. After a while, you sit in the darkness. You don’t care about paying the mortgage, you don’t care about bathing, you don’t care about seeing people. You pull down the blinds.” She shut herself up in the house, cried without rest, and did all she could to sleep all day. Gant called the city’s suicide hot line. “They asked if I had health insurance,” she says. “I had to hang up and laugh.”
Another moment of lucidity followed: She was going to keep her grandmother’s house, which her grandparents had purchased in 1961. “I was trying to hold on to a bit of my grandmother,” she says.
Gant had spent a lot of time at her grandparents’ house as a kid. Her grandfather, who died in 1967, was a cabdriver. Her grandmother was a waitress at the whites-only counter at the Woolworth’s in Columbia Heights. When Gant was a child, staying with her grandparents wasn’t perfect, but it was more tolerable than living at home.
To get her grandmother’s house, Gant would first have to deal with four other grandchildren. Her grandmother’s will dictated that the property was to be sold, and the proceeds split among them all. But with Gant interested in actually living there, the estate’s representative saw fit to sell it to her instead of testing the market. The representative, Elsie Wallace, says that’s what Gant’s grandmother would have wanted, and besides, an attorney advised her that the estate could actually save money that way.
But the other grandchildren weren’t crazy about having their shares possibly reduced by keeping the house off the market. One grandchild, Gant’s cousin, threatened Gant, and a judge later issued a protection order keeping him 100 feet away from Gant and the house at all times.
Gant bought the house for $72,000, and somehow she found a lender to give her a $96,000 loan to pay for it, with the $24,000 difference intended for renovations. Other than some new coats of paint every so often, the house hadn’t received much attention in 40 years. In the basement, the electrical wiring crumbled in your fingers.
Her loan documents are locked away in storage, but Gant says her interest rate was 11.5 percent, which is about 3.5 points higher than the going rate of 7.97 percent on conventional 30-year fixed-rate mortgages at the time. The lending agent told her she was a credit risk. At least the rate would be fixed. She says the agent promised her that over the phone.
The closing took place at the home of the estate’s representative. Gant was presented loan documents for signing; she noticed that her rate wasn’t fixed. City records attest that it was an adjustable rate; it would likely balloon after a certain time period. But because the other grandchildren wanted their money, Gant says she felt pressure to sign. Someone in the room—she can’t remember who—told her she could refinance in a year if she wanted, so she went ahead.
With all the work needed on the house, Gant did none of it. She spent her $24,000 surplus on other things: $16,000 went to purchasing a van, the rest to “other little debts.” The cost of her loan was $975 a month at a time when her income was limited to biweekly disability payments of $875 each. It is unclear how much her monthly mortgage may have fluctuated above or below $975, but in any case she says she couldn’t pay it. Lost in her dark tunnel, Gant pretty much gave up on her mortgage.
“You take something and sleep. When you sleep, you don’t have to think. You don’t have the voices in your head: ‘You owe this, you owe that. What are you going to do?’ You don’t have the stress.”
In March 2001, 15 months after signing the loan, Gant received a foreclosure notice in the mail. In imperious capital letters, she read that if she didn’t pay her arrears plus late penalties and attorney’s fees, her home would be sold at auction.
She mustered an effort to save the house, calling the original loan company. She wanted to talk to the agent who had signed her up, to ask if he could help her. “They said they fired him. The lady I spoke to said, ‘I can’t say much, but you should know you should never have gotten that loan. You weren’t working, and your disability wasn’t enough to cover the loan and living expenses.’ That’s all she would say.”
Because Gant wasn’t going to “cure” her loan in the specified time, her fate was now in the hands of the noteholder, a bank that had purchased the mortgage from her original lender. The bank was patient. A notice of foreclosure expires 30 days after the scheduled date of the sale, and the bank allowed that period to lapse in the spring of 2001. Gant received another notice in January 2002, and again the sale date passed without anything happening.
But her creditor got more serious this summer, following through on a third notice of foreclosure. By then, Gant would have needed to scrounge up $27,788 to halt the sale, not including the extra fees. Even though she was now on medication and working again, as a nurse at the D.C. Jail, the sum was too much. In August, a real-estate investor bought the home at auction for $135,000.
By September, Gant hadn’t left yet. There were cartons on top of cartons inside of bigger cartons crowding the crib of the porch, and Gant’s Kwanzaa scroll was still posted on the door. Even after losing the house, Gant was taking her time moving out. Now that she had almost nothing more left to lose, the advantage was finally hers.
Gant says that soon after the auction, a letter appeared on her door from the new owner informing her of the sale. When did she plan on leaving? Gant informed the investor that she couldn’t afford moving expenses, so she couldn’t leave. When you hold out this way, federal marshals usually force open your door and drag all your belongings to the curb.
Gant figured it was going to take months for the situation to reach that ugly point, “and no one gets evicted in wintertime.” Her reluctant landlord made the same calculation and gave her a $1,500 check to vacate the premises by Nov. 1.
Since Nov. 1, Gant has been living with a friend in a colonial town house at the protected deep end of a suburban cul-de-sac in Bowie, Md. Because she’s staying indefinitely, her friend has encouraged Gant to display her large collection of Africana around the house, to make her feel more at home. Most everything else Gant owns is in storage somewhere near the Beltway, but she can’t retrieve any of it—at least not until she gets up-to-date on her storage payments.
Gant likes it out in Maryland, and she plans on finding a place there. “I want a rambler, with everything on one floor, because of my lupus. I want to get something in foreclosure, something reasonable.” With two foreclosures in her past, she’s going to buy a new home by having a close friend, “a musician with A-1 credit,” get a mortgage in his name. Gant will pay the mortgage, and she’ll get her name added to the title. Considering it a little more, she says her friend and his wife will come live with her.
“I never understood—I don’t understand…”
Most people paying their bills simply stuff their remittance in an envelope, mail it, and then move on to other things. William, though, has had a more stressful routine.
Every third of the month, William, who is 71, receives a Social Security check. Until recently, he went to the cash store and turned about two-thirds of his benefit into a cashier’s check for $521.80 made out to Capital City Mortgage, a payment on his Jefferson Street home. Then he boarded a Georgia Avenue bus for downtown, walked five blocks to the Capital City offices at 1223 11th St. NW, and hand-delivered his payment. The trip took him about 45 minutes each way.
On first inspection, the trip cost two bus fares. But William discovered years later that it was costing him the bus fares plus $8. That was the monthly fee that Capital City charged William for hand-delivering the mortgage payment instead of mailing it. “Unbeknownst to me, they would charge me for going there,” he says. “They would charge me $8.”
According to a complaint filed in U.S. District Court against Capital City and other defendants, around the time that William found out about the $8 charge, he also was hit with two $225 charges for “Payoff Comp. Fees,” a $95 charge for “Misc. Adv.,” a $95 charge for “Inspect. Fees,” and a $38.66 charge for “Legal Adv.” One Saturday three years ago, says William, he delivered a cashier’s check the lender says it never received. Every subsequent payment has therefore counted as overdue, and earned him a $26 late fee, which was what the hand deliveries were intended to avoid.
The complaint, filed in June, alleges that William was one of many Capital City customers who were caught up in “an elaborate fraud designed to extract impermissible, unreasonable and unconscionable fees from borrowers” in order to “foreclose the property secured by the loan.” Also alleged is a “pattern of racketeering offenses” by former Capital City executives “by and through” Capital City Mortgage.
In 1992, William signed for a $27,000 mortgage with a 20 percent interest rate that he says has so far cost him about $65,000. This is nearly what the total cost of the high-priced loan was initially supposed to be. A Capital City attorney says that William rarely paid on time, the reason behind most of the fees and penalties. That’s why he still owes more than $20,000 on the 10-year note, why William has been threatened with foreclosure on his home many times over the years.
All allegations in the complaint are “absolutely false,” says Leticia Watson, Capital City general counsel. “Cap City has never done anything that the loan doesn’t allow. Everyone’s deed of trust lists what they can be charged for. That’s why we have loan documents.” Further, she says, William was adequately informed about the nature of the fees and penalties.
William is tall, with white puffs of hair and a gray mustache. When he walks, his left knee locks with every step, making his slow trips downtown painful excursions. He carefully hovers over chairs before sitting himself down, and he frequently rubs the knuckles on his club fingers. Lupus, a condition with which he was diagnosed in the late ’70s, has swollen his joints. A lupus-fighting steroid has worsened his eyesight to the point where he can no longer read. “I just bought glasses at the dollar store,” he says. “Without these, I can’t see anything. Even with the glasses, I can’t read the paper.”
The disease ended William’s career as a painting contractor, so in the ’80s he invested his savings into a floral business run by a friend of his. In the early ’90s, he says, that enterprise failed, and afterward William applied for disability assistance.
By 1992, William, who is unmarried, says he was desperate for cash. He had no income. He had already borrowed heavily from friends, and there were delays in starting the flow of Social Security. There was rent from a roomer coming in, but that went to cover the monthly payments on his first mortgage. But William, who had helped his mother buy the house in 1965, just before she died, had only about $15,000 left to pay on that mortgage, meaning he had significant equity in the home.
Crippled by debt, William got a helping hand. A man he had met at a friend’s house offered to find him the least expensive home loan out there; this would allow William to borrow $20,000 against the equity in his house to pay off his debts and hold him over until his federal assistance kicked in.
The man brought William to Capital City to meet the company’s president, Thomas Nash. Before William visited, he had never heard of Capital City, nor had he consulted with anyone who might have. But in Nash’s office were familiar faces: photographs of Nash with Marion Barry and Jesse Jackson. William frequently bumped into Barry at social gatherings. “He knew of me. I knew of him,” says William, who then trusted Nash by association.
The two talked for a half-hour or so, and later in the week, Nash came to William’s house to check on its condition. Nash OK’d it, and William later went to the Capital City offices to seal the deal. William couldn’t read the loan application, so he relied on Nash to help him.
The loan was for $27,000, not $20,000. William says he was told that company regulations prevented Nash from lending the lower amount. One thousand dollars of the total went to the man who had led William to Capital City. He hadn’t been acting as a friend seeking the best deal for William, but rather as a broker. William hadn’t known that the man’s “services” were going to cost him. “I haven’t seen him since,” William says. Another $2,000 went to settlement costs.
The loan application, which William says he didn’t fill out himself, said he made $45,000 a year from his floral business. But William said he had made it clear that he was unemployed and receiving no income—which was why he needed the loan.
And the fees and penalties, added to the principal over years of the loan, were something he says he didn’t expect. He couldn’t read them, and even when they were explained to him, “I never understood—I don’t understand them even today.” His complaint also alleges that Capital City charged him for payments made to his first mortgage—payments he says he didn’t authorize—and that were allegedly never credited to that loan. (In the case, Capital City provided copies of cashed checks made to the first mortgage.)
The litany of fees made William’s Capital City loan far more expensive than its already costly terms would dictate. Burdened by the debt that was supposed to help him from debt, William contacted AARP Legal Counsel for the Elderly, which referred him to Latham & Watkins, the white-shoe law firm that has taken his case pro bono. He currently makes his monthly mortgage payments to an AARP escrow account. William is not out of danger of foreclosure.
For a modestly sized lender, Capital City gets a lot of attention from housing advocates and government regulators. William’s complaint echoes allegations made by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) in its own pending fraud case against the company, on behalf of some 1,200 Capital City customers over two decades. The FTC has chosen William as one of its witnesses.
A Washington Post investigation found that a third of Capital City’s home loans originating between 1989 and 1991 eventually ended in foreclosure.
In motions filed by Capital City in William’s case, company representatives argue that they were unaware of William’s inability to read and that all the fees are appropriate.
“Creditors don’t make up information,” Watson says in regard to the income listed on William’s loan application. “All information is provided to them by the borrower. If the borrower has misrepresented the information, the lender can only go by the information given to them.”
“Being a subprime creditor”—a lender who markets to people with less-than-perfect credit—”the risk is always on our side, not on the side of a borrower,” she says. “It’s very expensive. We’re a small-time lender—we’re not even a big-time lender. Any borrower has to pay money back.” Watson also denies the FTC allegations.
William’s case is still in the discovery phase. The FTC case, meanwhile, is on indefinite hold. In December 2000, Thomas Nash suffered severe injuries in a polo match and went into a coma. Nash died in April of this year, two days before the trial was scheduled. Meanwhile, Capital City says it is out of the residential mortgage business, although it still services outstanding loans.
Recently, William took the Georgia Avenue bus but stayed on seven blocks farther than he normally does, down to the offices of Latham & Watkins. Because of his experience with Capital City, William is always on his guard now; he won’t speak to anyone about the lender without his attorney, Joel Ard, present. And with or without Ard, he refuses to meet with a reporter at his home on Jefferson Street. He says he doesn’t mind the long trip downtown. “It’s good for me to walk,” he says, though the trip involves only a few blocks on foot.
Although his case is a matter of public record, William was granted anonymity for this story. He is hesitant to answer in any way other than in short, partial sentences that respond directly to the question asked. He doesn’t attempt to reflect on his situation, except for once, at the end of the interview, when he volunteers how much the stress gets to him: “It’s put me in condition where I don’t sleep,” he says. He never sleeps more than two hours at a time. “I overly drink…#in spots. Then I’ll stop. But I get depressed.”
“I don’t know why people were so interested in this house.”
Once the Renwicks seemed permanent, fixed in Petworth. Tanya Renwick’s father was a mathematician for the Naval Surface Warfare Center in Virginia. Her mother was a statistician with the Census Bureau. The large red-brick row house where they lived anchored the corner where wide Kansas Avenue sliced Gallatin Street. Renwick moved there when she was 9—the same house her mother grew up in. In the ’80s, Renwick’s parents sought a firmer purchase on Petworth, buying a handful of homes and commercial properties on Emerson and Kennedy Streets.
But then both parents became ill when Renwick was still a teenager. Her mother and then her father died, and in 1999, when she was 21, Renwick was alone. That’s when she discovered that the financial foundations of the outwardly substantial estate rested on soft, sinking sand.
Her parents had leveraged their home in order to make extensive renovations to it and to finance their modest property-holding ambitions. And in their years of declining health, they had neglected their rental properties, the rents didn’t come in, and they lost two of the properties to foreclosure. Renwick was making $8 an hour as an admissions clerk at Children’s Hospital, and she was now supposed to make $1,300 monthly payments on the one house alone. Naturally, she fell behind. In October 2001, she received a foreclosure notice informing her that unless she paid $4,793 plus fees and penalties, her home would be sold to the highest bidder. Renwick was the third generation of her family to live at the house on Kansas Avenue. Prospects looked bad for a fourth.
With the notice of foreclosure, Renwick was “flooded with paper,” bombarded with phone calls, and met at the front door by many would-be saviors. These were the customary come-ons from high-cost mortgage lenders and home fix-and-sell specialists who scour the foreclosure announcements in the Washington Times looking for vulnerable targets. Promising to save people from foreclosure has become a full-fledged industry. These days, “mortgage assistance” ads compete for attention with Lincoln Tech and Greenberg & Bederman during the commercial breaks for Jenny Jones. Many of the foreclosure saviors, say housing experts, are crooks.
For Renwick, this bewildering array of bad options faded in the light of miraculous intervention: Her uncle, a New York University finance professor, offered to bail her out and save the family home.
But he wanted to do it the simple way. Instead of catching up to the existing loan by paying the arrears and fees, he proposed letting the property foreclose. Then, free of all previous entanglements, he would buy the home for Renwick at auction and make mortgage payments on a new loan himself.
But since the beginning of D.C.’s latest housing boom in 1999, investors and prospective homeowners have been much more keen on finding deals at foreclosure auctions. This trend eventually complicated Renwick’s plan.
Renwick doesn’t seem to think much of her house. Other than her particular row of homes, where lots of new people have been moving in recently, most residents in the vicinity—such as those in the row across the triangular green park—are elderly. She’s amused that people think of the neighborhood as a burgeoning hot spot and says she was surprised when, after the foreclosure was advertised, a parade of cars with out-of-state plates drove by her property to scope out the place.
On the day of her auction, bidder after bidder ratcheted up the price, and her uncle, on the phone from New York, went along for the ride. He ended up paying $160,000.
“People were bidding on this house like it was something big,” says Renwick. “I don’t know why people were so interested in
After the sale, Renwick went up to the most eager bidder and informed him it was her family’s house she and her uncle had just cast the highest bid for. The bidder apologized. He said Renwick should have spoken sooner—if he had known, he wouldn’t have competed for it. Renwick suspects that, as a black man, he sympathized with her situation.
Renwick, who is working toward an accounting degree at Morgan State University, says she may eventually get a master’s in hospital administration. But after witnessing how things work, she sometimes plays with other ideas. “I want to go into real estate, but I don’t know much about fixing [houses] up,” says Renwick. “If I could buy houses from foreclosure, fix them up, and sell them, you know how much money I would make?”
“I can’t believe I did that. I can’t believe I did that.”
By 1998, six years after his release from prison, Anthony Ross was catching up on adulthood. He was getting work in demolition and construction to supplement his wife’s income as a management analyst at the U.S. Department of Education. Antoinette Clark-Ross took out a $110,000 mortgage on a home near the corner of Jefferson and 5th Streets, in the relatively quiet center of North Petworth, three miles north of Adams Morgan, where they grew up. Because it was on a corner, their new home was big for a row house: three full floors totaling 2,000 square feet, plenty of room for the two of them, Antoinette’s teenage daughter, and the couple’s two sons.
In 2000, the year their second son, Isaiah, was born, Anthony fell back into what his wife describes as “erratic” behavior. “My husband was on drugs. It got to the point where if there were two paychecks, he was doing what he wanted with his check.” He wasn’t the family’s main breadwinner, but the family budget, including baby sitter’s fees and clothes for the kids, was calculated with his contribution included.
He went to rehab at the Phoenix Program in Arlington, and didn’t return home for more than a year. Antoinette fell behind on the mortgage payments, and in January 2001, she received a notice of foreclosure in the mail. She was ordered to come up with $7,816 plus fees and penalties or lose her house. Twelve other homes within two blocks of the couple received such notices in 2001.
Antoinette explained the situation to her lender—that even though only her name was on the title, she counted on her husband’s income, which was no longer available to her—and she and the lender reached a forbearance agreement. She and her husband are paying for it now. Instead of making $866 monthly payments, as they did before the delinquency, they are now paying $1,157
And still the notices keep coming in the mail, from people promising to save Antoinette from foreclosure: by buying her house or offering her a loan to pay for the one that’s delinquent. “Maybe we’re on a list forever,” she says. “It doesn’t come off.” She doesn’t even open the solicitations, throwing them along with rest of the junk stream from credit-card companies and mortgage lenders into the trash.
For their first kiss, over two decades ago, 14-year-old Antoinette left 17-year-old Anthony on the stoop while she stepped inside the protection of her father’s house. She closed the iron door between them and puckered up from behind the bars.
While Antoinette’s father, a construction worker, kept her indoors much of the time, Anthony was often found on the corner or with his other girlfriends. He fell into trouble with the law—and spent 11 and a half years in prison. “I was young, dumb, and full of cum,” says Anthony, now 38.
As Anthony prepared for prison, ex-con friends advised him to drop his girlfriends. This was for his girlfriends’ sake, says Anthony—he belonged to others now. But he didn’t drop Antoinette. They wrote each other almost every day while he was in prison. The feverish correspondence eventually broke up Antoinette’s relationship with another man, her daughter’s father. Anthony was released in 1992, at the age of 28; in 1995, after he cleared things up with another woman, his son’s mother, he and Antoinette were married.
When you visit the family, Anthony is often the one telling their story. He enjoys the performance, and he’ll interrupt his wife in his excitement to talk. She’s the one in the office dress, the one with the face broad like a shield, but he often speaks as if his wisdom exceeds hers, or at least when it comes to folly. And when he cuts her off, she smiles.
“The black community has not been educated as far as having equity in the house,” says Anthony. “People lose their house because they don’t know the value of a house.”
One evening, his wife is not yet home, and Anthony has just come back from his first, long day on his new job fitting fire sprinkler systems, a job he says his wife’s cousin gave him. He’s in his blue terry-cloth robe, sitting on his sofa, prepared for a bath. It’s crisis time. His 15-year-old stepdaughter, Brittany, has just crashed her friend’s father’s truck into a parked car, and Antoinette is so enraged that Brittany’s going to have to stay at her grandmother’s for a little while. Brittany shows up at the porch and Anthony shoos her away, warning her that her mother’s coming home soon.
The phone rings. It’s Anthony’s Alcoholics Anonymous sponsor. He tells the sponsor about Brittany and her big head and how last week he lost his plum parking attendant job at MCI Center, which he had held for only two weeks. Anthony’s supervisor had called him into his office and said that they’d done a background check. They’d discovered his felony record. This was a problem. When Anthony had filled out a job application two weeks before, he hadn’t checked the box indicating that he had a criminal history, so he had been caught in a lie. “I can’t believe I did that. I can’t believe I did that,” he says, describing his lack of disclosure as an oversight.
With his new job, Anthony says he hopes to get on the permanent payroll, a “company man” for the long term. “I can’t never fall down and not get up,” he tells his sponsor. “It takes two to make a house and two need to be working! When I had to go to Phoenix House, that stressed her out and everything.” CP
Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Illustration by Christiane Grauert.