White daffodils and ceramic frogs border the front porch leading to Barbara Jackson’s front door. It’s a home she lovingly cares for, and one she nearly lost.
Ms. Jackson is one of many
Ms. Jackson’s story of struggle isn’t new to anyone who has lived in this area for a few years. The temporary collapse of the auto industry and the Great Recession of 2008 hit our region as hard as any natural disaster, and we’ve yet to fully recover. One major indicator of our economic distress is the staggering rate of home foreclosures.
Wayne County’s foreclosure rate is double the highest rate of any county of comparable size in the nation, according to Ted Phillips, the executive director of United Community Housing Coalition. As of January 2014, there were 52,000 properties in foreclosure – nearly half of which were occupied homes in Detroit. In January 2003, there were only 1,600 occupied Detroit homes in foreclosure.
The United Community Housing Coalition, in partnership with United Way for Southeastern Michigan, provides guidance and loans to individuals and families who are at risk of losing their homes due to tax and mortgage debt. United Way not only provides funding for this work, but helps identify priority communities.
When I set out to find a person whose story could illustrate our work in foreclosure prevention, I didn’t anticipate how long and arduous the process would be before I found Ms. Jackson.
This journey is full of the unexpected
After Ted Phillips shared the numbers with me, he sent me a list of people whose homes had been saved from foreclosure, and, after perusing the list, I called a former Detroit police officer and his wife. The officer’s backstory was this: He had been injured in the line of duty and was subsequently forced into retirement. Although his wife still worked, the unexpected loss of his income resulted in an eventual foreclosure notice.
On the day we were scheduled to film the officer’s home foreclosure story, I woke up to a shaky message on my phone that said, “We have had a terrible tragedy in our family… We had a family member murdered.”
Understandably, the filming was cancelled. Even through her pain, the police officer’s wife apologized for leaving the phone message so early in the morning. She was concerned about me. I left for work that morning thinking about how much each of us must do to support one another in this community.
That same day
Later in the afternoon, I reached out to another family with hopes to film another story. The family agreed, and, again, I set up a date and time. But when my colleague and friend Charles Ashley and I arrived for the filming, no one answered the door.
We went back to Charles’s car and waited. While I made calls, Charles started counting the abandoned homes along the street, “1, 5, 8….”
After 30 minutes of residents popping their heads out to see why interlopers were sitting at the curb, we headed home for the night.
Enter Ms. Jackson
Throughout all of this, Ted Phillips of the United Housing Coalition stayed with us. He’s in this work day in and day out, and he knows that if more people knew of the efforts to keep families in their homes, they would feel compelled to help.
Finally, we found Ms. Jackson, a 52-year-old life-long Detroiter and mother of three. As I sat in Ms. Jackson’s home and listened to her story, I saw a woman of strength — a woman who embodies the definition of grit.
On Thanksgiving Day In 1998, Ms. Jackson was at her daughter’s home helping with holiday dinner preparations when she got a call that the home she was renting had caught fire. She lost everything in the blaze.
Finding her way
“I became homeless. That was rough. I was hurt; I was really hurt. Everything burnt up. Everything. I lost everything,” she recalled. Ever optimistic, she added, “I was still working at the time. I had my job.”
For a few years, she alternated between couch surfing with different members of her family and sleeping in her car. When people are in crisis, just getting the basics like food can prove taxing, let alone permanent housing.
That was the case for Ms. Jackson.
“Being homeless is very stressful. You don’t know where you’re going to sleep. What you’re going to eat. You can’t take a bath. It’s not a good feeling. I wanted my own home.”
Three beds and a bath
During the interview, Ms. Jackson looked to her brother, Joshua, who sat nearby and helped her tell her story. The two even managed to laugh as they remembered happy, shared experiences from the past. It reminded me that we can remember certain portions of our lives only when we are with the people who helped form our memories.
When she gets to the story of purchasing her three-bedroom home in 2003, Ms. Jackson is full of pride. Pointing out the cranberry-colored carpet she picked out for the living room where we were filming, she said, “I had to do some work to this room. The work you see. I did it.”
Ms. Jackson bought the home with her fiance for $1,000 down and a $80,000 mortgage. But when her fiancé died unexpectedly, she was stuck with all of the bills, which quickly accumulated. A couple of years later, the company where she worked went bankrupt, and she lost her job. Ms. Jackson was at risk of homelessness once again.
Determined to keep her home, she scraped by. When she couldn’t afford heat, she slept in her living room with a space heater to stay warm.
“I am a survivor.”
Fighting for her future
In the meantime, she continued to look for a job. But with the Great Recession at its height, she couldn’t find full-time employment as a security guard until 2010.
By this point, the home was underwater and she had already started getting notices from the bank. She struggled to get someone on the phone who would talk to her about the situation. “No one talked to me about it. I didn’t even have a chance to refinance…It made me sick.”
Although Ms. Jackson attempted on several occasions to work with the bank that held her mortgage, she was denied assistance.
Joshua accompanied Ms. Jackson to her initial court hearing. When she asked him what she should do, he responded, “If you want your house, you fight for your house.”
She was given a directory of resources and eventually found her way to the United Community Housing Coalition.
The Coalition helps families navigate the foreclosure process, even helping them purchase back their homes through auctions and loaning them the money to do so. In most cases, the homes at auction are sold for a considerably lower cost than what the family owed on the mortgage. Families then pay the Coalition back over a few years and own the home outright. The payments cycle back to help more families in need. But the need is great.
In Ms. Jackson’s case, the Coalition purchased the home for $5,000.
“$5,000. They purchased this house for $5,000!” she said, laughing. Ms. Jackson soon will own her home free and clear.
A place to lay her head
Now, Ms. Jackson just wants to keep up her home and her street. She frequently mows the lawns of the abandoned homes nearby. With assistance from the Brightmoor Alliance, her granddaughter is helping her paint neighborhood homes in a style à la Heidelberg.
“I’ve been through a lot,” Ms. Jackson said. “My hope is that I can keep my home, and keep it up for my grandkids so they have a place to come. My hope for the neighborhood is to get better – to clean it up and tear down the raggedy houses.”
No doubt some of those “raggedy houses” were a result of foreclosure. And when families lose their homes, it affects us all. Each home that goes into foreclosure doesn’t just displace a family – it can cost the community thousands of dollars in devalued property and blight removal.
I am hopeful this work is helping us move in the right direction. But we won’t get there alone. There are too many Ms. Jacksons looking for the help of individuals and organizations working together to save homes and neighborhoods.