Last Home Standing
Jacqueline Tamaklo lives in one of New York’s most foreclosure-ridden neighborhoods. And now she’s fighting not to end up like the Joneses.
New York | September 6, 2009
LIKE SO MANY RESIDENTIAL ROADS in America, Beach 70th Street has become a battleground. On this one-block street in Arverne, Queens, partway down the Rockaway Peninsula, nearly half the homeowners have found themselves at war, each with a different opponent: HSBC, IndyMac, Wells Fargo, Bank of New York, Long Beach Mortgage. Every time a bank or mortgage company prevails, another neighbor disappears. And then there’s Jacqueline Tamaklo, who lives in a two-family house near the end of this dead-end street. In a neighborhood with one of the highest foreclosure rates in the city, Jackie at times seems to be the last one standing.
When she bought this place in 2006, Jackie celebrated by stepping inside and hollering “Thank you, Lord!” Who cared if the neighbors could hear? It was a glorious moment, and it had been a long time coming. Born in Liberia and raised in Ghana, Jackie had worked nonstop since she was a teen; in the Rockaways, she operated her own beauty parlor and clothing shop. And now here she was, only 29, with her own piece of the American Dream: a 1,976-square-foot house. She had been waiting to start a family until she had a stable home. If all went according to plan, the house would even help pay for itself. She could live on one floor and rent out the other.
“Thank you, Lord!”
Flash-forward three years, and this celebration is a distant memory. As it turned out, Jackie had bought a $520,000 lemon. You don’t even need to go inside the house to get the sense that something has gone terribly wrong. In the backyard, the blue awning that once advertised Jackie’s beauty parlor now lies atop the grass; the word unisex is still visible, but the wind has ripped the canvas from its frame. Crammed in her shed are all the supplies she once used to make her living: mannequins, hangers, security cameras, cash registers, hair extensions. The metal clothing racks that lined her store are now stashed beneath the porch, growing rustier with every rainfall.
The yard is both a testament to her entrepreneurial spirit and a cemetery for her thwarted dreams: Jackie used the profits from her businesses to fund her home repairs, then didn’t have enough in the bank to stay open once the recession hit. Watching her savings shrivel, she was haunted by one question: How did she ever let herself get into this enormous mess? Looking back, she believes it wasn’t only naïveté and ignorance that led her here; it was an excess of trust she placed in a system that had long since lost all safeguards, that was overrun with people peddling false promises and dispensing horrible advice. It’s a situation lots of homeowners find themselves in, though in Jackie’s case, the betrayal of trust felt especially steep.
While many Arverne residents have been enduring similar struggles—sky-high mortgage payments, foreclosure notices arriving in the mail—the fight to hold on to your house can be a lonely one indeed. Nobody wants to admit to the neighbors that any day now a city marshal may snap a padlock on your door. Jackie still owns her house, but she doesn’t know if she’ll be able to keep it. Ever since she moved in, her emotions have run the gamut from grief and despair to frustration and fury. But for now the depression has subsided, replaced by a stubborn determination. “This is a free world,” she says. “I didn’t come over here to be nobody’s doormat. Not anymore. I am prepared to fight to the end.”
IF NEW YORK HAS A FORECLOSURE CAPITAL, it’s some eight miles north of Jackie’s house, in Jamaica. Every day, desperate homeowners file into an office on 162nd Street, beneath a modest blue awning: NEIGHBORHOOD HOUSING SERVICES OF JAMAICA. The original mission of this nonprofit was to help people buy and fix up homes; these days, the agency is focused more on what it calls “homeownership stabilization”—or helping people hold on to what they’ve already got. Recent visitors include an 82-year-old widow who unwittingly signed over the deed to her house; a Spanish-speaking waiter who refinanced twice and now has a $513,000 interest-only loan; and a nurse who got injured, fell behind on her mortgage, and nearly lost her house.
Most of the homeowners who walk in are African-American; the rest are mainly immigrants. There are bus drivers and home health aides, teachers and sanitation workers. Everybody shows up with an armload of documents: mortgages, deeds, tax returns, pay stubs, bank letters. Some carry their papers in manila envelopes; others stuff them into shopping bags; one woman filled an entire laundry cart and wheeled it in. In the waiting room, they slump in their chairs. One woman refuses to take off her sunglasses lest anyone see her cry. Nobody needs to tell these people they are “losers”—as Rick Santelli did in his infamous CNBC rant. They appear to have gotten the message already.
By now, the counselors here have seen every variation on the foreclosure saga: People who purchased houses they could not afford; people who got mortgages they could afford at the time but then lost their jobs; people who took out a second mortgage only to watch their monthly payments jump out of reach; people who were tricked into signing loans with terrible terms. While each story is different, there are certain themes: Of the first-time homebuyers, most got their houses through “one-stop shops” in which all the players work together—the real-estate agent, mortgage broker, lawyer, and appraiser. This approach certainly simplifies the home-buying process, but the buyer usually winds up with a horrible deal: a dilapidated house with a jacked-up price tag and a lousy mortgage.
The task of untangling each homeowner’s story can take a couple of hours, and these conversations are always difficult. To make the telling a little easier, the counselors added doors to their cubicles. Once the door slides shut, some homeowners admit they haven’t told anybody they’re about to lose their house—not their children, neighbors, siblings, sometimes not even their spouse. In some households, the only person who knows how dire the situation is may be the person who handles the bills. The Kleenex boxes that the counselors keep on their desks run out quickly.
At the front desk, the receptionist’s phone won’t stop ringing. “We’re in the eye of the storm, and it’s raging right now,” says Helen Maxwell, a former real-estate agent who works as a counselor. “We don’t see any letup.” In many ways, a storm seems an apt analogy: At times, the scene here almost suggests Hurricane Katrina, minus the wind and rain. Nobody is standing on his rooftop waving a white T-shirt, but everybody is praying to get rescued before they end up with nowhere to live.
BACK IN THE SPRING OF 2006, Jackie Tamaklo uttered one sentence that would ultimately change the direction of her life, though not in the way she expected. She was attending a prayer meeting at her church when it came time for the closing prayer. As the members took turns speaking, sharing their hopes for the future, Jackie joined in: “I believe that by the end of 2006, I will be a homeowner.” Her plan was to work with a real-estate agent she knew, but when Bishop Paul C. Cockfield heard what she’d said in the prayer meeting, he sought her out. “Don’t you know your bishop does real estate?” she recalls him saying. “God brought you here. This is your one-stop. You don’t have to look anywhere else.”
Jackie decided to throw her lot in with him. She had known Bishop Cockfield since she’d joined his church in 2005. The church, on Beach 67th Street, was a congregation of immigrants, most from Guyana, Cockfield’s native country. Though she didn’t share this homeland, Jackie was so impressed by Cockfield’s preaching that she became a devoted follower, showing up every Sunday and tithing $150 or $200 a week. When he offered to help her find a house, she trusted him completely. “One hundred and ten percent,” she says. “That was my bishop.”
Not long after, he brought her to a place on Beach 70th Street. Once she got inside, she was taken aback. The house appeared abandoned: Down in the basement, some twenty neighborhood kids were getting high. Jackie recalls Cockfield telling her: “Don’t worry about all this. We’ll take care of all of this for you. I’m going to make sure you get some monies to renovate.” Despite how wretched the place appeared, she found his words persuasive. “He kept assuring me that he knows the owner of the property. It’s not a big deal. He’s going to make sure things work out for me. And he believes this is the will of God for me.”
The closing took place on July 10, 2006, at a lawyer’s office in Flatbush. For most of the time, Jackie says, she and Cockfield were the only people in the room. “He was the one telling me ‘Sign here, sign there.’” She’d earlier told him she could only afford $2,500 a month, but now, when she asked him how much her mortgage payments would be, she recalls him flipping through the documents, then answering “$3,600.” “I said, ‘Bishop, that’s too much money.’ His response to me was, ‘Don’t worry. In two or three months, we’ll refinance it and lower the payments for you. All you have to worry about is the first two or three months.’ I said, ‘Okay—the first two or three months, I can get that money from my business.’”
JACKIE NEEDED TO RENT OUT half her house if she was to have any hope of making her mortgage, and to do that, she first had to spend thousands of dollars on repairs—fixing the basement pipes, the boiler, the windows, the roof, the stairs. In the beginning, she was hopeful that Cockfield would help her cover these costs and refinance her mortgage. But that didn’t happen. “I went back to him to try to help me get out of this mess, and nobody would pay me any mind,” she says.
At the time, Jackie didn’t know much about “predatory lending,” but that changed a few months later when she visited an electronics store near Kings Plaza and met a sales manager named Geraldo Nieves. He became her boyfriend—and, eventually, the father of her child—and after he heard her home-buying tale, his analysis of the situation was simple: “Babe, that’s predatory lending.” An avid reader of the Daily News and the Times, he had been tracking the foreclosure crisis. Soon she was, too. “The more I watch TV, the more I’m hearing about predatory lending, the more I’m realizing I am a victim also,” she says.
In March 2008, an envelope arrived that looked like junk mail. Jackie opened it anyway. Inside, she discovered a flyer with a picture of her home and an auction date: April 4. “What the hell is going on?!” she said. She was seized by a sense of panic, a physical response she later described as “worse than a heart attack.” As it turned out, the letter was from a foreclosure “rescue” company trying to sell her their services. (“This is the last opportunity you may have to stop the sale.”) But until she’d opened the envelope, she had no idea she was two weeks away from losing her home.
Long Beach Mortgage Company had started foreclosure proceedings against her the prior year, and, as required, had sent a process server to deliver the paperwork. But Jackie says she never received it—or any other foreclosure notices. She suspects the papers went to her tenant or to the wrong residence altogether. (On some property records, her address is mistakenly listed as Beach 71st Street.) Even without formal notification, however, she shouldn’t have been too surprised to learn she was at risk of foreclosure; after all, she had fallen behind on her mortgage payments after six months.
To stop the sale of her house, she filed for bankruptcy. Then she contacted the servicer of her mortgage and managed to obtain a trial loan modification. If she paid $3,575 a month for the next six months, the servicer would lower her interest rate and waive her late fees, or at least that’s what she recalls being told. To generate income, she devised a last-gasp plan: Rent out the first and second floors of her house—and move into the basement. She found tenants through a city homeless program; with the city picking up most of the tab, she figured she’d get the rent on time.
Soon two formerly homeless families were living on top of her—in quarters far sunnier and more spacious than her own. She, her boyfriend, and their 4-month-old baby shared a cramped, dark space in the basement. They slept together in a tiny bedroom and used the remaining room as a kitchen, dining room, living room, and laundry. The dryer sat next to the stove; the vacuum lived in the bathroom. The ceiling was so low her boyfriend couldn’t make it to the bathroom without smashing his head on an overhead light.
It was a dismal setup, but it did make Jackie’s mortgage more manageable. For seven months, she made every payment. But when the trial period ended in early 2009, she got some bad news: Her loan had been assigned to another servicer—and now that servicer refused to honor her agreement. She had to pay all her arrears or else lose her home. “At that point in time, the anger inside of me rose,” she says. “And I said to myself, ‘You know what, God? I’m not going to take this nonsense anymore.’”
She gathered her documents, slung her briefcase over her shoulder, and headed off to State Supreme Court in Jamaica. There, a clerk informed her that there was already a foreclosure action pending against her. Like many homeowners, she’d mistakenly believed that by entering into a trial loan modification, she had dismissed her foreclosure action. But that hadn’t happened. “It’s in foreclosure,” the clerk said. “It’s just waiting to be sold.”
She was in even deeper trouble than she’d thought. Too much time had passed for her to be able to defend herself in court. Her only hope was a long shot: somehow persuade a judge to give her another chance. She got a form for an order to show cause and filled in the blanks by hand: “I AM A VICTIM OF PREDITORY LENDING AND WOULD LIKE THE CHANCE TO PROVE MY CASE. I HAVE DONE EVERYTHING TO SAVE MY HOUSE, AND HAVE INVESTED MY SAVINGS INTO IT … PLEASE, PLEASE, PLEASE DO NOT ALLOW THEM TO TAKE MY HOME FROM ME. I DO NOT WANT TO END UP IN THE STREETS WITH MY NEW BABY.”
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.
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.