It’s 6:30 on a Saturday evening as Vickie Johnson reclines on a brown suede couch in her dimly lit living room. It’s her favorite place to relax on the weekend at her tiny Altamonte Springs home. She sleeps on it too, ever since October of last year. She does that, she said, because she’s guarding the front door.
Though she lives in a relatively poor neighborhood along State Road 436 where Altamonte Springs addresses start blending into Casselberry, it isn’t a fear of burglars that keeps her up at night. Seemingly everyone knows her here. They wave hello as they turn the corner to pass by her house.
But Bank of America doesn’t know Vickie Johnson. And she’s worried about what the bank is going to do with her home.
“I’m just waiting for the day they come to take my house away,” Johnson said of the bank that issued her mortgage and is now trying to foreclose on it. “I’ve heard the horror stories where they show up out of nowhere to kick you out. I don’t want my children to be the ones to answer the door.”
Always a fighter
Johnson doesn’t seem like the type of person who would be waiting to lose her home. Despite her situation, there is no pleading in her eyes. Her go-getter personality jumps out at you as soon as she shakes your hand.
Though she grew up in a broken home, had her first child at 15 and tangled with the law as a teenager, the 39-year-old mother of four fought her way into adulthood.
She battled to graduate high school. Then, while she was working for Hughes Supply as a product database administrator, she paid her way through college to get an associate’s degree in health information technology.
Now working as a medical billing and coding specialist, she’s putting herself through college again, this time working toward a bachelor’s degree in computer information systems.
She’s worked as an advocate for teens in the juvenile justice system. She’s the secretary of her homeowners association. She volunteers for the neighborhood watch program.
But none of that seems to have much bearing on the mess of financial trouble that fills the huge handbag she carries with her everywhere. It’s bursting with foreclosure notices and years of legal paperwork.
It’s been almost two years to the day since her problems started. On Aug. 10, 2009, she was laid off from her job of 13 1/2 years. That’s when the struggle to pay her mortgage began. She kept fighting and landed another job. But a year after starting a new career at Raytheon, a government military contractor, she was laid off again, and her problems got much worse.
Her mortgage came second to feeding her kids, she said. But when she got jobs and tried to catch up on bills, she said her mortgage lender stopped communicating, sending her sporadic bills and then forgetting about her completely. But the foreclosure process continued anyway.
In the past three months, she said, she’s felt like the bank has done more to exacerbate the situation than to help her.
“I’ve done everything to try to work through this,” she said. “I’ve paid the forbearance payments. I’ve tried talking to them. But it hasn’t been enough. Nobody’s listened.”
At 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Aug. 11, a calmly confident man in nondescript slacks and checkered button-down shirt steps up to a podium in an auditorium at Winter Park’s St. Margaret Mary Catholic Church. David Westcott has driven more than 250 miles from Tallahassee to tell 100 homeowners how he can help them save their homes.
He’s been in the industry long enough to see what happens when homeowners get behind on bills. The clock is ticking away for homeowners who have already fallen behind on payments, he said. The longer they wait, the worse it gets.
“There are a number of different options for folks, but if people don’t admit that ‘Hey, I have a problem and I need it solved,’ then the road gets narrower and narrower down toward foreclosure,” Westcott said.
That’s where Westcott comes in. Three months ago, his organization, the Florida Housing Finance Corporation, got the official go ahead to help disburse the $1 billion federal Hardest Hit Fund, which gives money to homeowners who have fallen behind on payments and are in danger of losing their home.
But with Florida’s record number of foreclosures, coupled with strict rules for qualifying for assistance, getting the money to those who need it has been harder than originally hoped.
The numbers have been daunting. In Florida, 22,377 homeowners filed for foreclosure in July 2011, second only to California, the most populous state in the country.
“Florida has consistently ranked among the states hardest hit by foreclosures, falling housing prices and unemployment,” foreclosure relief advocate Joan Flewelling said. “1.7 million Floridians have been affected by foreclosure filing. That’s almost 10 percent of the population.”
It’s a problem that will only grow if Florida’s homeowners can’t get relief on their mortgages, said Florida Rep. Darren Soto (D-Orlando), who handles foreclosure cases as an attorney.
“If we don’t do this, we will have a generation of Floridians who are scorned with bankruptcy,” Soto said. “Foreclosures are our albatross. We need to get aggressive with this issue now.”
Helping the hardest hit
That’s just what the Hardest Hit Fund was designed to address. With an initial projection of giving homeowners up to $12,000 each to help satisfy payments, the program was expected to keep the average homeowner afloat for six months.
But there are hitches in that plan that will prevent many homeowners from keeping their homes, Westcott said. It stops paying at six months; nationwide, the average time a laid-off worker remains unemployed is nearly 10 months, economist and New York Times columnist Paul Krugman said. It also only applies to those who are unemployed or underemployed. Death, divorce and disability aren’t considered with the Hardest Hit Fund, Westcott said.
For many homeowners, those restrictions have been the nail in the coffin for their homes.
Three times the hurt
As Westcott sits down from the podium at St. Margaret Mary, a skinny 50-something woman in a light blue denim skirt, blue blouse and thin-rimmed glasses hobbles up on an injured foot, reaches for the microphone and launches into a tirade.
Two years ago, Mary Blady’s husband, Howard, who works in construction, was laid off when the housing market collapsed in the wake of the recession and lending crisis. Then, when they couldn’t pay their mortgage on time, the bank foreclosed on their Winter Park home where they had lived for 10 years.
Howard recently got a full-time job again, making the same money as he had before, but the bank has refused to set up a payment plan to stave off foreclosure, Mary said.
“The banks caused this, then we helped them with a huge bailout, and now they’re foreclosing on our homes,” she said. “How crazy is that?”
When she found out that the Hardest Hit Fund might be able to save her house, she said she discovered that despite their recent struggles with unemployment and underemployment, they didn’t qualify for assistance.
That kind of frustration has made her wonder why an assistance fund was set up at all.
“Why don’t you just hand over that billion dollars to the banks now and save a few trees?” she said. “You can even give ’em our house keys.”
Fixing a broken system
The Bladys’ situation is the type of problem Westcott said he’s trying to address. Getting community activists together will only improve that voice, he said.
During a pilot program to try to determine the right duration of assistance the program should give, the Florida Housing Finance Corporation set the limit at six months after initially suggesting 18 months.
Now, he said, they’re considering redrawing the line between who qualifies for the funds and who doesn’t. But there are limits to how many homeowners the Hardest Hit Fund can help and how much it can give them, he said.
“Wherever you draw the line, unfortunately there’s going to be somebody on the other side of that line,” he said.
For now, the tiny yellow-and-white blockhouse at the corner of Teakwood Lane is still Vickie Johnson’s home. Still talking on the couch Saturday evening, she’s casually watching TV as pastor Timothy Clark bellows out a sermon into the airwaves.
“The woman respected herself …,” he said in the background.
She still smiles when she talks about her house, even if she’s been battling foreclosure for two years. Even as she’s still on the other side of that line.
“It was something to call mine,” she said, recalling the joy of buying her home 14 years ago. “I had a home, a yard, a swing set. It was home. It was ours. It was the American dream.”
She’s smiling a little more today. Tired of waiting for her bank to respond to her requests, she used the money from the last forbearance check she’d sent — which she said the bank claimed never arrived — to hire a lawyer to try to save her home. Once again, the woman who never gave up is battling back.
“I’ll tell you one thing,” she said, looking around her living room filled with photographs of her children and more than a decade of memories. “It’s not worth much, but it’s worth the fight.”