Friday, October 15, 2010

Foreclosure Up Close: Waiting for the Sheriff to Kick You Out of Your Home.

The West Side of Worcester, Mass is a “nice” part of the city, quiet and respectable and where middle-class homeowners keep up their homes. Many have lived here forever. 

William O. Gardiner IV, above, has called this neighborhood home for 38 years; his parents brought him here at age six.  People call him Billy just as I answer to George or “Jodgie” when my given name is George Francis Pollock III.

People have no respect for royalty these days.

When Billy moved into his own home here eleven years ago,  it was one of the happiest days of his life. Next door was the family home he had grown up in and where his sister Kathy now lives with her two kids, Victoria and Austin.  The two of them can often be seen running around their uncle’s lawn, which they treat as their own.

He had a festive house-warming gathering of family, friends, and neighbors. I was there to welcome him and to extend my best wishes. You see, I was Billy’s other next-door neighbor. I still am, a relative new boy in the neighborhood compared to Billy.

Billy has been a good neighbor.  Over the years, we have developed an easygoing relationship with lots of kidding back and forth. The only problem I have with him is that extra roman numeral. (I do NOT like being out-roman-numeraled.)

Lately, the word in the neighborhood has been that Billy is in financial trouble and is even in danger of losing his home. One morning this past July, a lot of cars suddenly showed up at his house and just as suddenly drove off.  Was it an auction?

Billy seemed to drop out of sight. His house was ominously quiet. A typical nosy neighbor, I wondered: what is going on next door?  If Billy is in trouble, can I just stand by and ignore it?

I finally knocked on Billy’s door to invite him to go with Barbara and me to a photo show featuring six local photographers. Billy is a professional photographer.  I thought he would enjoy the show and that maybe we would have a chance to talk.

When Billy opened the door, his face was a portrait of relief. “Whew,” he said, breathing again. “I thought you were the sheriff.  I was going to come out fighting.”

“So it’s true?”

“Yup, waiting for the other shoe to drop.”

“How about taking a break from it and going to a photo show?” I asked. “Six local photographers are showing their work in Worcester tomorrow night.”

Billy hemmed and hawed and finally said, "Okay, come on by."  The next day, I went over at the appointed hour and rang the bell. Nothing, even though I could see his car in the driveway. We went to the photo show without him.

A few days later, Barbara and I were out walking and Billy came driving up our hill and stopped. “Sorry about the other night,” he said. “I heard the bell, but I was exhausted. I had been working all night for the third day in a row.”

“Not a problem,” I said.

He was wearing the uniform of a security guard.  A former Worcester City police officer for ten years and struggling to make a go of the photography business he runs from his home, Billy was clearly doing what he had to do to save his home.

In the scheme of things, Billy is just another number in the foreclosure express.  But he also happens to be my neighbor and  a human being doing his best to avoid losing his home.  “I’m no slouch,” he said as he drove off to get some sleep.

In our immediate neighborhood, three homes are for sale, not counting Billy’s. The homes, which have been on the market for months, are not selling.  Until this year, whenever a home went on the market, which was rare, it was quickly snapped up.

Now when our paths cross, Billy and I add black humor to our normal banter.

“After they kick me out, I’m thinking about pitching a tent on your front lawn,” he said.

“I have no problem with that," I said.

“How about that spot there?” he said, pointing to a patch of green under the big tree on our front lawn.

“That would work. But of course there will be costs.”


“You know, to use our toilet and maybe the shower.  I’ll work up a price list, so much for a shower, so much for using the toilet -- you know the drill.”

“Will there be a separate price for a poop and a pee?”

“Of course.  You think I’m some kind of charity? But, tell you what, for a poop and a pee at the same time, I’ll give you a break on the price.”

Of course, the prospect of losing your home is no joking matter. Too much is at stake, Billy Gardiner’s entire life, to be perfectly clear. But maybe the joking around is a way for us to acknowledge what is happening, without getting into the horrific reality.

Still, I couldn’t shake the image of the sheriff posting an eviction notice on Billy’s front door. Though it was clearly none of my business, I tentatively began broaching the subject of what was going on.

Billy didn’t tell me to bug off, which he had every right to do. Instead, we began to talk. I asked him what bank held the mortgage.

“Fannie Mae.”

“Fannie Mae?” I was surprised, actually shocked. “Fannie Mae?”

I thought: The Fannie Mae bailed out in the financial meltdown of 2008 with billions of taxpayer dollars? The Fannie Mae taken over and owned by the United States Government and, in other words, by all of us?

“Is Fannie willing to talk?”

“Nothing. I call. They listen. They do nothing.  For them, it’s a done deal.”

That did it. We had to talk, really talk. Billy had a story to tell. “It means letting it all hang out,” I said.  "Do you really want to do that? You don’t have to, you know.”

“I know.  I want to.  Let’s do it.”

So Billy and I sat for two and a half hours at his kitchen table and got into horrific reality.

But not at first.

First we talked about Billy Gardiner the person that the number on the pile of financial and legal documents on his table does not exactly capture. The documents say nothing of the two great passions of his life. “Ever since I was a kid,” he said, “ I loved pictures and dreamed about being a police officer. I’ve carried a camera my whole life.”

Today his living room is set up as a professional photo studio and he has his own website for William Gardiner Photography. Two of my favorite photos of his are a group portrait of Worcester firefighters  and one of a Worcester landmark,  Coney Island Hotdogs. You can see them both and many others by clicking on his website above.

Always quick on the draw with his camera, Billy caught me in his back yard. He stuck his camera out the window and shot. Having  been working in my yard, I was in old clothes and covered in dirt. He calls the photo, “Filthy Dirty Old Man.”  I threatened to sue, but backed off when he reminded me that he had asked my permission.
Billy went to Worcester Academy, which is known for its high standards and tough entrance requirements. He spent six years in college, five off and on at Syracuse University and one at Howard University, leaving without a degree.

He tried an engineering major but it wasn’t for him. Howard had a Selected Studies Program  which let students design their own curricula.  He designed a curriculum in industrial relations and management. But he said that he couldn’t get Howard to approve it. “No matter what I suggested, they said no,” he said.

He went back to Syracuse University. By now, Billy was interested in  studying photography,  computer programming, and criminal justice management.  But the university did not offer the courses that he wanted. It had no course in criminal justice, for example. He ended up unhappily in the School of Arts and Sciences and eventually left.

Billy spent summers in Martha’s Vineyard six years in a row, where he worked as an ice cream maker. After leaving college, he embarked on five years working for three different temp agencies. “I worked everywhere at hundreds of jobs,” he said.  “One was at a foundry making concrete rooms for the Worcester House of Correction. I spent hours sweeping up cement dust.”

He snagged a regular job at Digital Corporation. He was responsible for handling  hundreds of monitors, keyboards, and infrared equipment. He kept track of it all and got it shrink-wrapped and out the door. It was not to be. He worked at Digital 364 days. “They fired me because they would have had to pay benefits after 365 days,” he said.

One day when he was working at Leiser Sound in Westborough, a state trooper came in saying that his handset didn’t work. “He was in full dress uniform,” Billy said, “and we got to talking.”

Billy still remembers his name, Sgt. Al Toney. He was black. “So what are you going to do with your life?” Sgt. Toney asked him.

Billy mentioned his old dream of being a police officer.  “Do you have to be the son of a cop, brother of a cop, or have some kind of in?” he asked.

“No, you have to take a test,” Sgt. Toney said.

Billy signed up and took the test for both the state police and the Worcester city police. In the meantime, he got a job as a campus cop at Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI).  He worked in the Office of Traffic Enforcement at WPI  from the fall of 1992 to the spring of 1994.

That’s when the Massachusetts State Police called.  He had aced the exam with a score of 95 and was invited to take training at the State Police Academy in New Braintree. He went, but hated it. “I couldn’t stand days of running constantly and being screamed at,” he said.  “It’s not the way I learn.”

Billy quit after five days.  

The Worcester police called. He had also aced the civil service test with a 98 and was invited for a personal interview. At the interview, Worcester police officer, Al Sjogren, said to him: “Of everyone we’re looking at, you are certainly the most educated and probably the smartest. Why do you want this job?”

“To help people, sir,” Billy said.

Billy Gardiner was sworn in as a  Worcester police officer on April 4, 1994.

The bad blood with other officers began almost immediately. Billy saw a police officer’s duty in a way that was polar opposite from many of his fellow officers, he said. “Their idea was ‘we’re cops, we can do anything we want.’  I believe that we have to follow the law and respect people’s rights.”

He cited domestic abuse  as an example. He said there is a right way for police to deal with it and a wrong way. “The right way is to spend time with the victims of domestic violence, respect their rights, talk to them, find them shelter if needed, get a restraining order to protect them if necessary.”

Billy said that other officers would answer a domestic abuse call and be out in five minutes. But many of the victims are from the “wrong side of the tracks,” poor, have trouble with the English language, and are upset and confused, Billy said. They need help from understanding officers.

Name-calling began. Billy was a “pussy.” He was a “gang leader.” He did “too much social work and not enough police work.” A lieutenant called him in and told him that no one wanted to work with him and that he needed to “take a look at your liberal attitude.”

In a “para-military organization” like the police, Billy said, this is code that “when we have to be heavy-handed,  I won’t back them up.”  He was a pussy because he “didn’t deck people, didn’t throw people down stairs, didn’t jerk their hands behind their back.”

With no officer willing to partner with him, Billy was transferred to the cell room where accused prisoners were kept.  “It was a disgusting pit,” Billy said.  He became an outcast within the department.

He said that no one would stand up for him because “they didn’t want to get the same treatment.” Other officers  wouldn’t cover their backs, and “nobody stood up to cover my back,” Billy said.

He became hyper anxious. He was uptight all day.  He went to the bathroom constantly. He said he was a “basket case every day.” He slammed doors.  He furiously smashed his 2-way radio. His fuse got shorter and shorter until, he said, “I became one of them.”

He stopped taking paid details. When he was not on duty, he was at home sleeping and eating. Severely depressed, he began seeing a therapist once a month. It was the start of nearly ten years of counseling.

He now wanted out of the Worcester Police Department and his superiors wanted him out. He said that only two ranking officers were understanding and treated him decently, Gary Gemme and Mark Roche.  Ironically, they are today Chief and Deputy Chief of the Worcester Police Department.

After a name-calling incident with a dispatcher who filed a report on him, Billy was sent to a psychologist to evaluate his ability to perform his duties.  After a 45-minute session, the psychologist determined that he “can’t do the job” and that it was “not reversible.”

Finally, in 2002, Billy was fired from the Worcester Police Department. Two police sergeants met Billy in the cell room and took his weapon. After a terse termination brief from the chief, Jim Gallagher, Billy was out the door on paid administrative leave.

Billy had applied for a full disability pension and appeared before a medical panel of three physicians. The panel approved him medically for the full disability pension. Then his case went back to the City of Worcester Retirement Board, which denied it.

A police union lawyer filed for mediation before a state judge and the city of Worcester backed off. He was allowed to retire on a regular medical disability of 25% with health insurance.

That’s when his life “nose-dived” and the financial problems began, Billy said.

He worked at Sports Photo Shop in Northboro for a while and also at Captive Images in Shrewsbury. But neither job lasted very long  or paid very well.  At the same time, he threw himself into his photography business that he began running from his home.

When photography, always his first love, didn’t produce the income he needed, he took other jobs to pay the bills. He worked as a driving instructor and I would see him on our hill in a car with student drivers. He worked as a substitute teacher in Shrewsbury middle schools. When he could not find work, he collected unemployment for a while.

He began to fall behind on bills.  He resorted to using his credit card, but said it was mostly to buy photographic equipment to get his Photo Studio up and running.  With interest and fees, his credit card balance went up to $17,000.

His original mortgage, with Mackinac Savings Bank in Michigan, was bought and sold repeatedly before being taken over by Fannie Mae. Among the buyers were Washington Mutual (which has spectacularly failed), Fleet Bank, American Mortgage Fund Corp, and JPMorgan Chase.

He didn’t get a chance to send a check to one of them before he got a package from another bank with a coupon book. The letter said that “we now own the loan” and payments should now be sent to them. Billy said it has been hard keeping track of who owns his loan and who is servicing it.

Along the way, he has tried to make his mortgage loan more affordable though modification. With Chase, in June of '08, he filled out all the paperwork to keep his payment at an affordable $979 for a six-month trial period.  At the end of six months, he had to do the paperwork all over again and "overnight" all the completed documents, which he did.  The modification was denied.  

When he succeeded in modifying the loan, the monthly payment went up, not down.  One modification jumped his monthly payment from $1200 to $1400. The last modification, in '09, increased his payment to $1,597.

According to a Chase payoff statement on June 30, 2010, the unpaid balance of $150,141.88 had climbed to $176,848.08. The added charges included $18,838.16 in interest, $5,628.11 for something called “Escrow/Impound Overdraft,” $1,877.25 for something called “Recoverable Balance,” and $392.38 in late charges.

“I stopped listening to everybody,” Billy said.

As he fell further and further behind in mortgage, car, and other payments, depression overtook him. For two months, he didn’t open mail, letting it pile up. He didn’t answer the phone.  People showed up at his door “offering me money before the house went up for auction.”

In one of his discussions with a Chase representative, there was an off-hand reference to Fannie Mae. “That was the first mention I heard of Fannie Mae,” Billy said. Unknown to him, Fannie Mae had bought his mortgage.  Fannie Mae foreclosed on July 27, 2010. On July 30, Billy came home to a notice stuck on his front door.

The first sentence was: “This property is now owned by Fannie Mae.” The notice informed Billy of his options. He could rent with a 12-month lease. He could relocate with assistance if he signs an agreement with Fannie Mae to move out and leaves “the property in broom-swept condition.”  The notice ended with the name of a real estate agent, David Parent of 195 Park Ave. in Worcester, that Billy should contact within 10 days to declare his choice of options.

Billy sat down and wrote a letter to Mr. Parent. This is the letter:

To David G. Parent,

My name is William O. Gardiner IV and I live at 69 Zenith Dr., Worcester. Recently, Fannie Mae took my property after I attempted to negotiate with them repeatedly around my loan. I believe you visited me and left me a letter saying I had two potential options, to stay put and pay rent, or to relocate with assistance.

My commitment is to stay in my property for the next year and rent it. At this time, based on my present income and budget, I am able to make a monthly payment of $700.  I hope that as landlord you are willing to work with me because it has become very challenging emotionally to leave my home of 11 years at this time. Not only have I lived here for 11 years, but I grew up in the home next door.

The financial hardship that I have been dealing with is a direct result of working for ten years as a Police Officer for the City of Worcester.  During that time I began to suffer from depression, hyper anxiety and post traumatic stress and as a result, was forced to retire and have been very limited as to the type of work that I can perform.

My Photography Studio is also in my home and this is one of my primary sources of income at this time.  To top it all off, I have been having difficulty finding alternative housing as my credit rating is in a place where traditional rental agencies are having difficulty working with me.

I appreciate your willingness to work with me around staying in the home I have lived in for 11 years. This week would have been the 11th anniversary of owning my home.  Once again, for my entire life, I have been committed to serving my community, as a police officer for ten years and as a volunteer throughout the Worcester area.

Thank you very much for any assistance you may be able to provide in keeping me in my home. I appreciate your making this work out for me.  I look forward to being able to stay in my home. Please be in touch with me to let me know how and to whom to send the rent.


William O. Gardiner IV

On August 8, a Sunday, Mr. Parent drove up in his pickup, walked up Billy’s front walk, and rang the bell.  Not sleeping after working all night, which is unusual, Billy opened the door.  He knew it was Mr. Parent.

“I just sent a letter to you,” Billy said. “What can you tell me about what I can do to stay in my home?”

“I’m just a middle man,” Mr. Parent said. “You’ll have your day in court.  Fannie Mae is going to file for eviction.”

And that’s all he said before turning around and walking away, Billy said. “Unfeeling.”

Billy called Grace Ross, a Worcester activist who runs a group that helps homeowners fight foreclosure and eviction . The group meets twice a month and Billy has been going to the meetings.

“She is super well-read in the law,” Billy said.  She told him that he is going to get a “notice to quit,” served by a sheriff.  For a homeowner, that means you have to be out in 72 hours, Ms.Ross told him.

“Ignore it.  Do not get out,” Ms. Ross said.

She told him that he would be soon served with a request to go to court.  When he receives the request, she said, he should ask from Fannie Mae what is called a summary process. “That will require Fannie Mae to prove that it owns the property,” Ms. Ross said.

She went on: “Ask for answer and discovery.  They will have to show up with these in court.  They won’t have the information.  They won’t show up.  This happens almost every single time.  Basically, what we are doing is buying time and waiting for the other shoe to drop.”

That shoe is a formal “notice to quit” -- to get out of the home -- served by the sheriff.

But William O.Gardner IV is not just sitting there waiting for that shoe to drop.  He is doing everything he can think of to stop it.  "This is my home," he said.

So long and keep moving.

P.S. Mortgage defaults have become an avalanche. According to federal housing figures, 11.5% of all mortgages are in default, up from 5.7% two years ago. Banks and their mortgage servicers have been accused of mass producing mortgage foreclosures  with "robo-signing" of tens of thousands of affidavits. Bank of America, the largest bank in the U.S., JPMorgan Chase and other major banks have halted foreclosures in many states.  On October 13, 2010, all 50 state attorneys general announced a nationwide investigation of foreclosure practices.

P.P.S. As the parents (mom and stepdad) of a Worcester police officer, whom we lost a year ago, Barbara and I have had a very different experience with Worcester police. Our son was not the kind of police officer that Billy had trouble with ( in a parent's eyes, he could of course do no wrong).   The two got along well. The Worcester Police Department has gone over and above to console us and the wife and four children that our police officer son left behind.  We are very grateful for that. We both understand that this is Billy's story based on his own experience. We respect that and are pulling for him to keep his home.

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