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Last Home Standing

Jacqueline Tamaklo lives in one of New York’s most foreclosure-ridden neighborhoods. And now she’s fighting not to end up like the Joneses.

Jackie and her son, outside the shed that houses memories of an easier time.  

Like so many residential roads in America, Beach 70th Street has become a battleground. On this one-block street in Arverne, Queens, partway down the Rockaway Peninsula, nearly half the homeowners have found themselves at war, each with a different opponent: HSBC, IndyMac, Wells Fargo, Bank of New York, Long Beach Mortgage. Every time a bank or mortgage company prevails, another neighbor disappears. And then there’s Jacqueline Tamaklo, who lives in a two-family house near the end of this dead-end street. In a neighborhood with one of the highest foreclosure rates in the city, Jackie at times seems to be the last one standing.

When she bought this place in 2006, Jackie celebrated by stepping inside and hollering “Thank you, Lord!” Who cared if the neighbors could hear? It was a glorious moment, and it had been a long time coming. Born in Liberia and raised in Ghana, Jackie had worked nonstop since she was a teen; in the Rockaways, she operated her own beauty parlor and clothing shop. And now here she was, only 29, with her own piece of the American Dream: a 1,976-square-foot house. She had been waiting to start a family until she had a stable home. If all went according to plan, the house would even help pay for itself. She could live on one floor and rent out the other.

“Thank you, Lord!”

Flash-forward three years, and this celebration is a distant memory. As it turned out, Jackie had bought a $520,000 lemon. You don’t even need to go inside the house to get the sense that something has gone terribly wrong. In the backyard, the blue awning that once advertised Jackie’s beauty parlor now lies atop the grass; the word unisex is still visible, but the wind has ripped the canvas from its frame. Crammed in her shed are all the supplies she once used to make her living: mannequins, hangers, security cameras, cash registers, hair extensions. The metal clothing racks that lined her store are now stashed beneath the porch, growing rustier with every rainfall.

The yard is both a testament to her entrepreneurial spirit and a cemetery for her thwarted dreams: Jackie used the profits from her businesses to fund her home repairs, then didn’t have enough in the bank to stay open once the recession hit. Watching her savings shrivel, she was haunted by one question: How did she ever let herself get into this enormous mess? Looking back, she believes it wasn’t only naïveté and ignorance that led her here; it was an excess of trust she placed in a system that had long since lost all safeguards, that was overrun with people peddling false promises and dispensing horrible advice. It’s a situation lots of homeowners find themselves in, though in Jackie’s case, the betrayal of trust felt especially steep.

While many Arverne residents have been enduring similar struggles—sky-high mortgage payments, foreclosure notices arriving in the mail—the fight to hold on to your house can be a lonely one indeed. Nobody wants to admit to the neighbors that any day now a city marshal may snap a padlock on your door. Jackie still owns her house, but she doesn’t know if she’ll be able to keep it. Ever since she moved in, her emotions have run the gamut from grief and despair to frustration and fury. But for now the depression has subsided, replaced by a stubborn determination. “This is a free world,” she says. “I didn’t come over here to be nobody’s doormat. Not anymore. I am prepared to fight to the end.”

If New York has a foreclosure capital, it’s some eight miles north of Jackie’s house, in Jamaica. Every day, desperate homeowners file into an office on 162nd Street, beneath a modest blue awning: NEIGHBORHOOD HOUSING SERVICES OF JAMAICA. The original mission of this nonprofit was to help people buy and fix up homes; these days, the agency is focused more on what it calls “homeownership stabilization”—or helping people hold on to what they’ve already got. Recent visitors include an 82-year-old widow who unwittingly signed over the deed to her house; a Spanish-speaking waiter who refinanced twice and now has a $513,000 interest-only loan; and a nurse who got injured, fell behind on her mortgage, and nearly lost her house.

Most of the homeowners who walk in are African-American; the rest are mainly immigrants. There are bus drivers and home health aides, teachers and sanitation workers. Everybody shows up with an armload of documents: mortgages, deeds, tax returns, pay stubs, bank letters. Some carry their papers in manila envelopes; others stuff them into shopping bags; one woman filled an entire laundry cart and wheeled it in. In the waiting room, they slump in their chairs. One woman refuses to take off her sunglasses lest anyone see her cry. Nobody needs to tell these people they are “losers”—as Rick Santelli did in his infamous CNBC rant. They appear to have gotten the message already.

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