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There’s long been an O’Brien on Acker Place, and Anita O’Brien wants to keep it that way.
Her great-grandfather, Lewis, purchased the redbrick rowhouse at 660 Acker—a one-block street with narrow brick sidewalks and thin trees—in 1902. The Capitol Hill property drifted among relatives until her grandfather bought it during the Great Depression. Her father grew up there, traveling up its well-worn wooden staircase to the three small bedrooms above. And nearly 25 years ago, Anita O’Brien moved in herself with her three children.
Unfortunately, right now, she’s not sure who owns it—but she knows it’s not her. O’Brien is the target of a foreclosure “rescue.”
In 2004, she defaulted on a refinancing loan. After the bank began foreclosure proceedings on her house, the 59-year-old was approached by a woman who said she would take the title of the house, pay O’Brien’s mortgage, then sell the home back to her later. In the meantime, she could keep living there and pay a more reasonable rent.
O’Brien agreed. But four years later the home went into foreclosure again—and this time, she had no legal rights to it.
By now, she has figured out this much, but not much more: At the end of June, the house went up for auction at Alex Cooper Auctioneers in Friendship Heights. She’s still at home on Acker, waiting for some news: Did anyone buy her house? Do they want to move in? Can she stop that?
“These kinds of cases have been around a long time,” says Wendy Weinberg, a lawyer with the Legal Aid Society of the District of Columbia. “They’ve just gotten a lot worse.”
“The profile is mixed,” says Weinberg. The schemes range from highly organized operations involving hundreds of properties, many individuals, and millions in equity, to one-time, opportunistic deals.
“On the smaller scale, you sometimes see family members doing it to each other,” says Weinberg. “Particularly you sometimes have grandchildren or children stealing title of the home from an older person, either from getting power of attorney or misrepresenting what the documents are.”
O’Brien’s story begins in 1994, when she took out a loan to help with her daughter’s college tuition. Then in 1998, O’Brien refinanced when she officially launched Lightwork Ministries Inc., the nonprofit organization for her congregation that does community charity work.
The congregation needed money for some basic stuff, including chairs and audio equipment. So O’Brien got a smaller loan for roughly $3,000.
In 2004, the congregation hit hard times. Some churchgoers left. Fewer contributions were filling the coffers.
And so she was faced with a choice: Either stop doing Lightwork’s charity work—helping college students pay their cell phone bills and apartment security deposits, and providing prisoners with money to buy soap, shampoo, and other items—or stop paying her mortgage.
O’Brien didn’t want to leave anyone in the lurch, so she stopped paying.
Her foreclosure notice, of course, became public—foreclosure filings are available at the city’s Recorder of Deeds to anyone with an inclination to see them, for good purpose or ill—and a woman named India Rogers paid her a visit.
O’Brien remembers Rogers as “very petite, very polished, and very articulate.” She sat on O’Brien’s green leather couch just inside the front door, then walked past the family photos by the staircase to tour the rest of the house.
After roughly three weeks and several conversations, O’Brien agreed to sign over the deed, and met with Rogers’ partner Taofik Gbadomosi.
When the transfer occurred on October 18, 2004, she had an outstanding loan of $149,001, according to foreclosure filings.
For the next few years, O’Brien paid rent to Rogers and Gbadomosi, up to $1,500 a month. They, in turn, were supposed to be paying her mortgage.
But in September of last year, yet another foreclosure notice on the property was filed, saying that $416,075 was owed. O’Brien was stunned—there was nearly $267,000 more tacked onto her outstanding loan. It appeared Gbadomosi and Rogers had borrowed against the value of her house.
Gbadomosi tells a different story, saying he has been upfront with O’Brien throughout the foreclosure proceedings. He considers himself a real estate businessman who himself has fallen on hard times. At one point, he owned eight properties—he purchased some outright to flip, and others under agreements like the one he had with O’Brien— but now he has none. “This was the last one,” he says of the Acker Place home.
He says it was O’Brien who stopped paying rent midway through 2008, which he contends led to the foreclosure (she denies that she stopped paying).
And he says he notified O’Brien about the impending foreclosure last fall and even tried to short-sell her the property.
“I gave her numerous opportunities to buy. I told her to make an offer. When the property was going into foreclosure, I told her everything,” he says.
Gbadomosi says O’Brien was putting “the documents together, she was trying to obtain a loan through HPAP,” a program that assists first-time homebuyers with their down payments and closing costs.O’Brien asked to negotiate directly with the bank, but Gbadomosi says he wouldn’t allow it. Still, he expected O’Brien to make an offer to the bank, if only to the delay the auction. Now, Aurora Loan Services, the original lender, owns the property, he says.
When her housing woes began last fall, O’Brien got in touch with Housing Counseling Services, Inc., an Adams Morgan nonprofit. Marian Siegel, the group’s executive director, says such schemes are not uncommon. She notes what may already be obvious to more savvy homeowners: She’s never heard of an instance in which a homeowner transferred the property deed, negotiated a deal to repurchase it in the future, and everything worked out according to plan.
O’Brien is trying to obtain a loan to buy back the house. So far, no luck.
Other people do seem to be eyeing the property. A few weeks ago, O’Brien had a strange visitor. A man in jeans and a T-shirt showed up at her front door and offered her a paltry $500 for the keys to her house. “It was weird. It wasn’t very professional,” she says.
The man explained that he was some kind of real estate broker, but he offered few details. She told him no. She has learned a thing or two since she signed away the property deed.
If someone does buy the row house and wants to continue renting it out, she’ll be allowed to stay, according to D.C. law. “They can’t ask me to move. They buy me with the property,” she says.
If that’s the case, there will still be an O’Brien on Acker Place, but for how long?
This story will run in this week’s print issue of the Washington City Paper.
Image by Darrow Montgomery