New laws too late in loss of home

Ghanaian immigrant continues struggle, says options limited

May 04, 2008|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,Sun reporter

Changes to Maryland's foreclosure laws have come too late for Kwaku Atta Poku.

The Ghanaian immigrant had built a new life in Maryland, only to lose his Howard County home, despite making every mortgage payment, and face financial ruin.

And though Atta Poku has sought redress through a variety of avenues, all have failed, and he says he is running out of options. His situation has deteriorated to the point where he is considering sending his four American-born children to live with extended family back in Africa.

FOR THE RECORD - An article yesterday about foreclosure victim Kwaku Atta Poku incorrectly described recently enacted foreclosure reform legislation.
The new laws lengthen the minimum time to complete a foreclosure from 15 days to more than four months, stiffen sanctions for mortgage fraud and crack down on fraudulent mortgage rescue schemes. A bill requiring mortgage lenders to verify a borrower's ability to repay was also enacted last month.
The Sun regrets the error.

"I have to deal with the bitter truth of facing reality," he said.

Last month, he traveled to Annapolis to watch Gov. Martin O'Malley sign a measure to protect homeowners - correcting what many have described as a serious flaw in Maryland's foreclosure rules that failed to prevent Atta Poku's misfortune. He personified those whom the measure is intended to help, even though the changes cannot retroactively help the taxi-business owner and his family.

Atta Poku lost his Columbia townhouse to foreclosure three years ago, despite never missing a mortgage payment. Washington Mutual, the nation's largest mortgage company, claimed the original mortgage was never satisfied after a 2001 refinancing, taking the house and reselling it before Atta Poku could act.

The proceeds paid the first mortgage, swollen by interest and fees, but Atta Poku is still getting notices that he owes more than $100,000 to Chase Manhattan Bank, which held a later mortgage that the foreclosure sale proceeds did not satisfy.

Atta Poku could not prove in court that the original debt had been paid, partly because of records lost by financial institutions. He has lost court battles at every level, culminating in a Maryland Court of Appeals ruling in January that upheld the foreclosure. He and his family were evicted in August 2006, his credit was ruined, and the business he built from scratch is failing.

The Annapolis ceremony, which Atta Poku attended with his wife, Beatrice, was bittersweet. In addition to lowering the amount of a bond required to stay a foreclosure during an appeal, the measure also banned the dismissal of foreclosure appeals in Circuit Court except in limited cases.

"I see there's empathy, sympathy, but I'm suffering," he said. "I look back and tell myself, `Why is this happening?'"

A civil negligence lawsuit to try to recoup heavy losses and repair his credit is pending. But any redress is uncertain and far off.

"He's got a compelling case, ... but he's absolutely got long-term problems," said Gerald M. Richman, an Ellicott City attorney who has worked for free to help Atta Poku. "What happened to him shouldn't happen to anybody."

The original mortgage was with a bank taken over by Washington Mutual, which then refinanced Atta Poku's debt. His lawyers argue that if any money went missing during that process it was not Atta Poku's doing and should not be his responsibility. He never saw or handled a settlement check.

The pending lawsuit against Washington Mutual, Stewart Title and Advance Settlement Co. seeks 1 percent of the $3.4 billion in profits the suit claimed Washington Mutual made in 2005, or $34 million on each of four counts.

"Atta Poku was relying on Washington Mutual to use that money [to pay off his original mortgage]," said Scott C. Borison, a Frederick attorney also working on the case. "The money was in their hands. All they had to do was pay themselves."

Washington Mutual spokesman Shane A. Winn said he could not comment on a pending lawsuit.

In the meantime, Atta Poku attempts to carry on. He's only able to support his family with help from a private nonprofit group. Without good credit, he can't borrow money to boost his AAAA Star taxi/sedan business.

With his business struggling, Atta Poku can't afford to advertise. He had hoped to recruit drivers for the two vehicles he owns, but now he's trying to sell them to cut insurance payments, he said, keeping a third leased sedan to continue operating. Lately, he's two or three weeks late on utility and insurance payments.

"Some days, I make $60 or $80, and some days, nothing," he said recently, standing in a light drizzle outside the Columbia townhouse where he lives with his wife and their children, ages 5 years to 5 months.

The home is leased for the family by Congregations Concerned for the Homeless, a local group that is paying most of his rent.

"This is the kind of family we want to be helping," said Jane O'Leary, executive director of the nonprofit. "He's been a great participant in our program."

Atta Poku is grateful for the assistance, but he knows the group's help is normally limited to a two-year transitional period.

"What will I do after two years?" he said. "I will still be homeless. I should be able to stand on my own."

Most of the alternatives Atta Poku considers have significant downsides. Driving for a larger company won't provide enough income to sustain his family or allow him the time to rebuild his own business. Filing for bankruptcy would mean bad credit for longer than he can sustain his family the way things stand now.

"I know I can get back on my feet," he said. "What I don't want to do is declare bankruptcy now and have seven years of bad credit. That would be a last resort."

Atta Poku said he has not given up, but he's unable now to see a good option.

"I've worked so hard to be here," he said. "How do I get out of my situation?"

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