Every week last spring, distressed homeowners crowded into the conference room at Congressman Gregory Meeks’s office in Jamaica. The offer of free foreclosure help on Wednesdays drew so many people that they sometimes had to wait three or four hours to speak with a counselor. One of the best is Eddie Perez, a 46-year-old former auto-repair-shop owner, who was then juggling more than 60 cases. “I’ve seen so many crazy loans. I mean, like really predatory loans,” he says. “And I say to myself: Thank God I carry a Bible and not a gun. Because some of these loan officers—they should be shot. You just don’t sit with a family that wants to make the American Dream a reality and—just for a $6,000, $7,000 commission—set this family up for failure. Where are the moral values of a human being? I don’t think those people have any.”
His clients aren’t the only ones reaching for a Kleenex. “Some cases are really, really tough,” he says. “I wake up at two, three o’clock in the morning, just thinking about these people. I go in my living room, sit on the sofa, and sometimes I cry.” He pauses. Just talking about the families turns his eyes watery. “How can I help them? I’m just hoping that the bank will do the right thing.”
One of Perez’s success stories is Josephine Ross, who came within two days of losing the Queens Village house her family has owned for more than 30 years. “In neighborhoods like ours and in the South Jamaica area, people come around in groups and ring your doorbell,” she says. “They offer you all kinds of deals: ‘We can refinance.’ ‘We can lower your payments.’ ” Of those people who took the bait, she says, “They think they’re going to pay $1,000 a month, and before you know it, a few months later, it’s $3,000 a month. A few months later, it’s $5,000 or $6,000.” After one of her neighbors refinanced, he lost his house altogether.
For the children in her neighborhood, the foreclosure crisis has provided some harsh lessons. “The kids, they see it happening,” she says. “The truck pulls up and the kids on the block are standing around watching their friends pack up and go away.” The corollary to this experience, of course, is all those times the same children have seen strangers going door to door, peddling all sorts of mortgage schemes. The sight has become so familiar, Ross says, that one day her then-8-year-old nephew answered the doorbell, turned around, and announced, “There’s a real-estate-scam person at the door.”
These days, perhaps even more pervasive are the foreclosure-rescue scams, publicized by fliers slipped under windshield wipers, ads in local papers, posters nailed to telephone poles. ESCAPE FORECLOSURE. STOP FORECLOSURE IN 12 HOURS. FORECLOSURE BAILOUT. Bewildered by the foreclosure process, homeowners pay thousands of dollars to people who promise to help but then do nothing. And all the while, of course, they could have been receiving free help from places like Meeks’s office.
In mid-June, however, the free counseling there stopped. After handling some 640 cases over seven months, the organization that supplied the counselors ran out of money for the program. (Its funder was the Consortium for Worker Education, a nonprofit arm of the New York City Central Labor Council. The CWE, which spent nearly $400,000, had hoped to obtain government funding, but none has come in.) Even though Eddie Perez got his last paycheck three months ago, he and many of his co-workers are still reporting to work. “You know what’s really ironic? We have foreclosure counselors who have mortgages; they have houses,” he says. “The people who are working to save other people’s houses—now they’re in trouble.”
For many homeowners facing foreclosure, the fight to hold on to your house is twofold. First there is the battle with yourself—against despair and shame and embarrassment—and then there is the battle to prevent your own eviction. Today Jackie still struggles to make sense of her own role in her real-estate debacle, to figure out how she—an entrepreneur with a two-year college degree—could have made such an enormous mistake. “If I was approaching the bishop on a business level, I think I would’ve approached it in a different way,” she says. “But when you start putting God in the picture, it kind of brings [out] that other side of me, which was very submissive at the time and humble.”
What she didn’t know then was that Bishop Cockfield was far from the ideal person to be doling out any sort of financial advice. Court records reveal that he filed for bankruptcy five times in the nineties. He’s also been taken to court numerous times over unpaid debts. And at the same time he was encouraging her to buy a house, he was having mortgage troubles of his own. Between 2002 and 2006, he and his wife had gone on a house-buying spree: They purchased two houses in Queens, two in Brooklyn, and one in Valley Stream. Between 2006 and 2007, all five properties entered into foreclosure.