Housing crisis hits too close to home

April 15, 2008|By JEAN MARBELLA

Let's be clear here: We're not talking about people who foolishly bought more house than they could afford, or took out a subprime mortgage that they didn't understand or gambled that an adjustable rate loan that started low wouldn't ever, duh, adjust upward.

We're not talking about any of those self-inflicted, foreclosure-inducing stab wounds that have contributed to the current housing crisis.

We're talking about someone's house possibly being seized over what started out as a $173 water bill.

That is what Leola Myers faces, as Sun reporters June Arney and Fred Schulte wrote in an article Sunday about the more than 20,000 Baltimoreans could lose their homes in the city's annual tax sale next month. While most are in that predicament for failing to pay property taxes, some, like Myers, are behind on much smaller bills -- for water or other city services.

Myers' plight struck a chord among readers, who have contacted Arney and Schulte with offers to pay the Belair-Edison resident's bill and help her keep her home. Myers, and the others in her position, have until the end of this month to settle up or risk having their liens sold to investors who then can seize their properties should the bills -- plus what can be thousands of dollars more in interest and other fees -- remain unpaid.

Scary -- and in a different way from the more typical foreclosure story you've been reading so much about in recent months in which people, either through ignorance or under pressure from lenders, often bit off more mortgage than they could chew. I think that's why my colleagues heard from so many people who, in empathy or outrage over what might happen to Myers, wanted to pay her bill for her. There was a shiver of recognition, a sense of "There but for the grace of God go I."

"I couldn't stop thinking about her," Victoria Lane, a Brooklyn resident, said of Myers. "This was just something I can relate to."

Lane, a state employee, has had her share of problems over the years -- she's been widowed, she's been out of work more often than not in the past four years, she's had to apply for assistance with her heating bills. "I understand how one thing can go wrong, and then it can just snowball," she said.

Myers, according to The Sun's story, is on disability after being injured on the job, while her husband has been out of work after two employers shut down. That, plus late fees adding up and an unexpected charge for paving the alley behind her house have Myers $500 in debt to the city, which will include her lien in the tax sale unless she pays up by the end of the month. She didn't even know her house was on the list of properties up for the tax sale until a friend alerted her.

Arney tells me you can buy a copy of this year's tax sale list at The Sun's office -- it costs 25 cents -- or you can check a Web site, bidbaltimore.com. (By the way, if you'll indulge a little horn-tooting for Arney and Schulte: They've certainly done their part over the past 1 1/2 years to expose how Baltimoreans are at particular risk of home seizures over relatively small amounts of missed payments. First they showed how an antiquated ground rent system left homeowners vulnerable to losing their homes over missed payments of as little as $24 -- a startling revelation that prompted the state to enact much-needed reforms. Then they began writing about how residents were losing homes over unpaid bills for water or other city services -- also leading to changes that will be signed into law next week.)

Lane wasn't the only reader to be moved by their latest story. Others wrote in, wanting to help out a fellow Baltimorean, or were indignant at the city turning liens over to investors who then can capitalize on someone's misfortune. Arney and Schulte have forwarded the offers to Belair-Edison Neighborhood Inc., a nonprofit organization that promotes and supports the community.

Johnette Richardson, the group's executive director, said her organization has started a special account to handle the donations, and hopes residents will take advantage not just of a one-time bailout but of the group's homeowners' budgeting and counseling services to prevent future problems.

"Anytime there's something that is threatening a person from staying in a home, it's threatening to the community as a whole," Richardson said. "You're breaking up that social fabric."

So true, and I think the outpouring of offers to help Myers keep her house -- and the growing recognition that something has to be done about the overall housing crisis -- reflects the fear of that fabric fraying even more than it already has. It's one thing to bail out the giant investment bank Bear Stearns, but what about individuals like Leola Myers who face -- whether through foreclosure or the city tax sale, whether through their own fault or some bank's fault or just bad luck -- losing their grip on a piece of the American dream?

They won't all be able to depend on the kindness of strangers like Lane.

jean.marbella@baltsun.com

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