Neighbors rally to help Germantown musician stave off foreclosure, if only temporarily

Germantown resident Rhonda Lancaster has been through many ordeals of late, not the least of which was receiving an eviction notice tied to the reverse mortgage taken on the family home before her mother’s death.

In her estimation, the last disrespectful straw arrived earlier this month in the form of a man who the bank sent to her home. He had a weed wacker.

“This is the kind of tactics they use, and part of it is psychological warfare,” Lancaster said of her experience with Wells Fargo, the originator of the 2009 reverse mortgage, and Fannie Mae, the current holder of the loan.

“Banks do not talk to people,” she continued. “If they would talk to the consumer and treat them with some ounce of dignity, a lot of the stuff that’s happening would not be happening.”

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Before that weed wacker could destroy the garden last week, and a moving crew could take her possessions in foreclosure activities, neighbors and friends rallied to Lancaster’s side.

“Someone screamed, ‘Hold it! Slow down!'” Lancaster said, and the garden her mother had planted was spared.

Temporary reprieve

Lancaster, a full-time musician and fitness instructor, discovered a Philadelphia Sheriff’s Office eviction notice on her front door at Morris and W. Logan streets when she returned from a business trip July 8.

Two days later, an extraordinary effort by neighbors and community activists, including Cheri Honkala of the Poor People’s Economic Human Rights Campaign, helped to stave off her eviction.

Those supporters helped raise more than $500 in cash. This happened as Lancaster’s possessions were being carried away from the house.

Speaking with NewsWorks, Lancaster recounted the on-site Sheriff’s Office deputy’s surprise at the community response.

“The deputy was saying, ‘You’re damn lucky, or blessed,'” Lancaster explained. “This doesn’t happen.”

A reverse-mortgage maze

Lancaster’s housing troubles began when her elderly mother fell ill in early 2009. She had been tending to her for 15 years, and in-home care was an expensive proposition.

A reverse mortgage on the home her family had occupied for 35 years seemed like a reasonable option. Reverse mortgages enable senior homeowners to convert a portion of their home’s equity into cash as long as they remain in the home. Unlike a regular home equity loan or mortgage, the loan is not repaid until after the borrower moves permanently or dies.

Lancaster said that after extensive research, she settled on a loan through Wells Fargo, in part because of the bank’s high customer service rating. She signed for the loan in her incapacitated mother’s name.

When Lancaster’s mother passed away in Feb. 2009, the trouble with the bank began.

“The first thing they did was call me during the week that I was preparing for a funeral,” Lancaster said.

Lancaster considered that a cold move. She wasn’t alone.

“What do they do? Are they staring at the death notices every day? That’s incredible,” said Philadelphia-based mortgage expert Fred Glick, noting that borrowers typically have six months to pay off this type of loan.

For their part, a spokeswoman for Wells Fargo explained that there is a protocol for when a mortgage holder dies.

“We do send out a letter of condolences to the heirs, and we also state in the letter the options that you have,” said Wells Fargo spokesperson Veronica Clemons. “Once the borrower is no longer in the home, that loan becomes due.”

Frustration builds

As Lancaster attempted to keep the house by acquiring a new mortgage, she claimed to have encountered a labyrinth of legal, financial and communication roadblocks.

She claimed Wells Fargo would not recognize her as the sole executor of her mother’s estate but a U.S. Housing and Urban Development helped her bide time until she again faced foreclosure in 2011.

While Lancaster said bank officials missed city-mandated meetings and failed to answer her inquiries, Clemons told NewsWorks this week that, “In terms of the way a reverse mortgage happens, we did reach out to Ms. Lancaster, and we’ve talked to her numerous times since her mother passed away in 2009.”

When Lancaster learned over a month after the fact that the loan had been sold to Fannie Mae, she said calls to that institution brought more troubles. She said one representative claimed to have no record of acquiring the loan.

The supporters pitch in

As foreclosure loomed and Lancaster faced a Sheriff’s sale, she reached out to anti-poverty activist Cheri Honkala.

Lancaster said Honkala, who was recently tapped as Green Party Presidential candidate Jill Stein’s running mate, was instrumental in organizing a meeting with a Fannie Mae executive. That meeting led to a new agreement of sale.

However, problems persisted, and Lancaster said that she received no further communication from the bank.

“Things were going nowhere,” Lancaster recounted.

When the eviction crisis reached a head July 10, Germantown neighbor and fellow artist Susan Mangan was on the scene to help.

“It didn’t seem as though she was given a fair chance to settle things with the bank,” Mangan said. “She should get more help staying in her house.”

Mangan joined a team of neighbors who began calling local politicians, activists and media to get as many people on the scene as possible. There is also an Artists Against Foreclosure petition to sign.

At the scene, Honkala spearheaded a last-ditch effort to keep Lancaster in her family’s home. It involved collecting the necessary funds to launch a bankruptcy filing.

“I went door-knocking in the neighborhood, different supporters came down and within 45 minutes, we were able to raise $1,000,” Honkala said. “We were able to have somebody go down immediately to file in Bankruptcy Court to at least stave off the eviction until [Lancaster is] given a court date.”

What now?

With the filing initiated, word from the Sheriff’s office arrived that the movers could leave Lancaster’s belongings be. Honkala and Lancaster hope that if the bankruptcy filing is granted, they can stave off foreclosure.

“If not, we know that we’ve got the next two to three weeks to organize as many people as possible to make sure that Rhonda is not thrown out of her house,” Honkala said. “There’s going to be a hell of a fight.”

Glick, the mortgage expert, said reverse mortgages are not bad loans when used properly.

“Without these reverse mortgages, there would be more houses on the market and values would go down,” Glick said.

Honkala took a darker view, though.

“As far as we’re concerned, reverse mortgages are predatory lending for our seniors,” she said. “Mortgage companies prey upon sick, elderly people, and then people like Rhonda are totally hurt in the process.”

For her part, Lancaster called for straightforward advice and better communication between banks and consumers.

“My case was strong. There are so many other consumers whose cases are strong, but they don’t know where to turn,” she said. “We’ve got to start training consumers not to be afraid. We have to clear out the mess and get it so people can do what they need to do in a timely fashion.”

As for the effort that enabled her to stay in the home, even if only for the time being, Lancaster said, “I’m so thankful my neighbors came out.”

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