By now, the counselors here have seen every variation on the foreclosure saga: People who purchased houses they could not afford; people who got mortgages they could afford at the time but then lost their jobs; people who took out a second mortgage only to watch their monthly payments jump out of reach; people who were tricked into signing loans with terrible terms. While each story is different, there are certain themes: Of the first-time homebuyers, most got their houses through “one-stop shops” in which all the players work together—the real-estate agent, mortgage broker, lawyer, and appraiser. This approach certainly simplifies the home-buying process, but the buyer usually winds up with a horrible deal: a dilapidated house with a jacked-up price tag and a lousy mortgage.
The task of untangling each homeowner’s story can take a couple of hours, and these conversations are always difficult. To make the telling a little easier, the counselors added doors to their cubicles. Once the door slides shut, some homeowners admit they haven’t told anybody they’re about to lose their house—not their children, neighbors, siblings, sometimes not even their spouse. In some households, the only person who knows how dire the situation is may be the person who handles the bills. The Kleenex boxes that the counselors keep on their desks run out quickly.
At the front desk, the receptionist’s phone won’t stop ringing. “We’re in the eye of the storm, and it’s raging right now,” says Helen Maxwell, a former real-estate agent who works as a counselor. “We don’t see any letup.” In many ways, a storm seems an apt analogy: At times, the scene here almost suggests Hurricane Katrina, minus the wind and rain. Nobody is standing on his rooftop waving a white T-shirt, but everybody is praying to get rescued before they end up with nowhere to live.
Back in the spring of 2006, Jackie Tamaklo uttered one sentence that would ultimately change the direction of her life, though not in the way she expected. She was attending a prayer meeting at her church when it came time for the closing prayer. As the members took turns speaking, sharing their hopes for the future, Jackie joined in: “I believe that by the end of 2006, I will be a homeowner.” Her plan was to work with a real-estate agent she knew, but when Bishop Paul C. Cockfield heard what she’d said in the prayer meeting, he sought her out. “Don’t you know your bishop does real estate?” she recalls him saying. “God brought you here. This is your one-stop. You don’t have to look anywhere else.”
Jackie decided to throw her lot in with him. She had known Bishop Cockfield since she’d joined his church in 2005. The church, on Beach 67th Street, was a congregation of immigrants, most from Guyana, Cockfield’s native country. Though she didn’t share this homeland, Jackie was so impressed by Cockfield’s preaching that she became a devoted follower, showing up every Sunday and tithing $150 or $200 a week. When he offered to help her find a house, she trusted him completely. “One hundred and ten percent,” she says. “That was my bishop.”
Not long after, he brought her to a place on Beach 70th Street. Once she got inside, she was taken aback. The house appeared abandoned: Down in the basement, some twenty neighborhood kids were getting high. Jackie recalls Cockfield telling her: “Don’t worry about all this. We’ll take care of all of this for you. I’m going to make sure you get some monies to renovate.” Despite how wretched the place appeared, she found his words persuasive. “He kept assuring me that he knows the owner of the property. It’s not a big deal. He’s going to make sure things work out for me. And he believes this is the will of God for me.”
The closing took place on July 10, 2006, at a lawyer’s office in Flatbush. For most of the time, Jackie says, she and Cockfield were the only people in the room. “He was the one telling me ‘Sign here, sign there.’ ” She’d earlier told him she could only afford $2,500 a month, but now, when she asked him how much her mortgage payments would be, she recalls him flipping through the documents, then answering “$3,600.” “I said, ‘Bishop, that’s too much money.’ His response to me was, ‘Don’t worry. In two or three months, we’ll refinance it and lower the payments for you. All you have to worry about is the first two or three months.’ I said, ‘Okay—the first two or three months, I can get that money from my business.’ ”
Jackie needed to rent out half her house if she was to have any hope of making her mortgage, and to do that, she first had to spend thousands of dollars on repairs—fixing the basement pipes, the boiler, the windows, the roof, the stairs. In the beginning, she was hopeful that Cockfield would help her cover these costs and refinance her mortgage. But that didn’t happen. “I went back to him to try to help me get out of this mess, and nobody would pay me any mind,” she says.