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Last Home Standing

Before Jackie bought her house, she had asked Cockfield if he was making any money off her real-estate deal, perhaps a referral fee. He said no. At the time she believed him. In March 2007, when she began to go broke, she finally confronted him about her mortgage mess. “He blamed the [mortgage] broker and said the broker was very greedy,” she says. Soon after, she left Cockfield’s congregation and stopped going to church altogether.

Today, Cockfield, 48, oversees the Kingdom Empowerment Tabernacle, which now operates out of a former yeshiva in Far Rockaway. Cockfield himself lives in a seven-room, three-bath house on a quiet street in Valley Stream. Though he bought the house in 2005, it is now owned by Wells Fargo. (After taking over a house, some banks will temporarily rent it back to the original owner.) By late August, he had yet to be evicted.

Despite weeks of phone messages and several visits to his church, Cockfield refused to be interviewed. When tracked down at home on a recent Friday at 10:30 a.m., he appeared to have just woken up, answering the door with half-closed eyes, dressed in an undershirt. He wouldn’t open the storm door or answer any questions. “I don’t have to,” he said. “I really don’t have to.” Asked whether he had pushed Jackie to buy a decrepit house with a terrible mortgage, he said, “That happens every day.”

On Beach 70th Street, Jackie is still living in her basement. One morning not long ago, she woke at 5:30, fed her baby, got dressed, put on more makeup than usual to hide her fatigue, then left at 7:30. With no car, she couldn’t risk leaving any later; she had to get to State Supreme Court by 9:30. Even without her two shops, she still worked constantly. Two days a week, clients came to her basement to get their hair done. The rest of the time she was either in class or studying. Determined to overcome her financial problems, she had decided to go back to school at age 32. She’d enrolled in Long Island University, secured a scholarship, and was now studying to become a CPA.

Shortly before 8 a.m., she boarded a dollar van, then transferred to another van, and by nine she was making her way down Jamaica Avenue, heels clacking atop the brick sidewalk. By now, she had persuaded the Legal Aid Society to represent her, and a 31-year-old attorney named Sumani Lanka was handling the case. Lanka had told her she didn’t need to come today, but Jackie wanted to make sure she didn’t miss anything. Just before 9:30, she opened the door to Courtroom 505, spied her attorney in the front row, and slid into the seat beside her.

Trusting a stranger wasn’t the easiest thing for Jackie. After all, the last three years had been a brutal education in the perils of trusting too much. The year before, she had hired an attorney—a guy on Queens Boulevard that a real-estate agent had recommended—who charged her $4,000. She gave him $1,000 before deciding she’d be better off without him. But after her first meeting with Lanka, she figured she was in good hands. “She’s soft-spoken and sweet, but when that lawyer side comes out, you know she’s an aggressive person,” Jackie says. “I like that because that’s sort of how I am, too.”

This morning, Courtroom 505 was packed with lawyers—a sea of men and women in dark suits and shiny shoes—and then there was Jackie, wearing a purple velvet jacket that had once been for sale in her store. The lawyers formed a line to drop off their papers with the judge’s law secretary; they would have to wait for the judge’s response. When it was Jackie’s turn, however, the law secretary called a conference.

Jackie, her lawyer, and the lawyer for the mortgage company took seats at a table near the front of the courtroom. Jackie’s lawyer went first, running through a brief history of her case, and noting that her client had never received the original foreclosure papers. The other attorney disputed this, insisting that the papers had been properly served. As he listened, the law secretary toyed with a rubber band, then he asked a few pointed questions: Are we really going to turn this into an argument about service? You have somebody here who was paying—the way the economy is going, why would you put them on the street? He told the two sides to try to settle the case by working out a new loan modification.

Afterward, in the hallway, Jackie’s lawyer seemed almost giddy. “This is an absolutely great result,” she said. “This is exceptional. This almost never happens. This is a great result because they’re willing to get involved.”

“Well, God bless you,” Jackie said.

Today’s turn of events did represent a victory, though it was too early to know how Jackie’s story might end—whether she’d be offered a loan modification she could afford or one that was not much better than her original loan. But any hopeful sign was better than none at all. Together, the two women rode the elevator to the lobby and walked outside, past the Corinthian columns and down the steps. After fighting on her own for so long, Jackie seemed pleased to have an ally. She paused in front of the courthouse and hugged her lawyer good-bye, then passed through the tall black gates and strode down Sutphin Boulevard, on her way back home.


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