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When an elder loses a home

Financial abuse affects whole families

Sandra Larson
Sandra Larson is a Boston-based freelance journalist covering urban/social issues and policy. VIEW BIO

Cases of elder financial abuse are rarely clear cut; more often they present a messy trail of poor decisions, declining cognitive ability, aggressive or unscrupulous lenders and self-serving family members. But the results can be stark: lost dreams, financial ruin and even homelessness for elders or their heirs. And the loss of a long-held home not only curtails a family’s economic rise, but can fray the cultural fabric of a neighborhood.

A success story fades

Christina Soares’s great-aunt arrived from Puerto Rico in the 1940s, worked as a laundress and purchased a home on Oakwood Street in Dorchester.

When the aging aunt was slipping into dementia, Soares says, “a family member came in, isolated her, and was maxing out her credit card and applying for more cards, taking out a huge loan, and finally, getting a reverse mortgage.” The old woman died, the loan came due and family members in the home, including Soares, faced eviction. Despite years of efforts by housing activists and legal aid lawyers and an offer by the Coalition for Occupied Homes in Foreclosure to purchase the house from current owner Fannie Mae, Soares vacated the now-deteriorating home last month.

In her 30s and suffering a number of health problems, Soares is now “technically homeless,” she said in a phone interview. But beyond her own troubles, she laments the diminution of her great-aunt’s legacy.

“My aunt was the epitome of the American dream. She worked hard, she paid her taxes. She saved her money. She bought this house, and paid for it in full,” Soares said. “There were immoral things written into these loans. This woman never needed a loan. Her credit was perfect, and it was ruined. This could have been prevented.”

‘All over but the crying’

Bobby Jones, 56, has lived most of his life at 24 Upton Street in Cambridge, on a block of modest, neat rowhouses in the Cambridgeport neighborhood. He traces his family’s lineage to Robert Bonner, a founding member of the Niagara Movement, the early-20th-century forerunner to the NAACP. Another of the movement’s founders, scholar/writer W.E.B. Du Bois, once roomed a half-mile away on Flagg Street. Jones’s grandmother, Robert Bonner’s daughter, bought the Upton Street house in the 1940s.

“It’s always been family lore that this house has been the longest owned house by any of the Niagara Movement founding member [families],” said Jones.

Jones’s mother, Nancy Henry, grew up in the house and returned as its owner after her mother died in 1987. After a fire necessitated repairs, she took out a mortgage with Provident Bank, and soon fell behind on the monthly payments.

“For whatever reason, she just ran out of money,” Jones said. “I believe she just had a mental block. She wondered why this bill was coming. She must have wondered, ‘If I pay this, how will I pay my heat?’”

When in 2007 the loan arrears led to foreclosure, Henry sold the house for $238,000 — probably significantly less than its value — to a broker, referred by a friend of a friend, someone Henry says assured her he would find her a smaller house or condominium. According to a paper trail amassed by Jones and an interview with Henry’s attorney from Greater Boston Legal Services, the broker paid off the existing mortgage debt, coaxed another $35,000 out of Henry and flipped the house to a “straw” buyer who went quickly into foreclosure. Henry neither recouped her money nor gained a new house. Instead, for the past five years she and Jones have been fighting eviction from the now-bank-owned building.

GBLS attorney Todd Kaplan said, “Our primary allegation is that [the bank] shouldn’t have lent this money because they were facilitating a scam. The court disagreed. They let them evict Mrs. Henry.”

In a recent interview in the home’s tiny living room, Jones said he expects the sheriff to knock on the door any day.

“It’s basically all over but the crying,” he said.

The looming challenge now is to secure affordable housing for Henry, who suffers from early stage Alzheimer’s. A court-appointed guardian is assisting in the search. It is unclear whether Jones will be able to move with his mother.

Henry understands they’ll be moving out soon, leaving fewer faces of color on Upton Street. Standing on the front steps, she shared a few memories, speaking over the exuberant shrieks of children at the school across the street — the former Webster School that she herself attended some 70 years ago.

“I used to know everybody. It used to be all black people,” she said. “Now it’s a mix. Now there are students across the street, in an apartment advertised for one or two thousand dollars.”

And when Provident Bank sells this house, nestled among properties valued by Zillow and Trulia at upwards of $750,000, its price will doubtless far exceed anything Nancy Henry imagined back in the day, when she owned 24 Upton Street free and clear.

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