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A family lives through foreclosure

Photo by Casey Miner
Rosa Fernandez and her children Dominique Ibarra and Roxanne Ibarra, at their home in San Jose.

Since the country’s foreclosure crisis began in 2007, nearly four million people have lost their homes. In the Bay Area, more than 750,000 homes have been foreclosed. And even though the economy might be getting better, they’re still happening.

Both here and around the country, these foreclosures are disproportionately affecting low-income and minority communities. These communities are less likely to have a financial safety net and are more likely to have been targeted by predatory lenders.

“At this point half of all foreclosures in California are going to be among Latino borrowers, two-thirds among communities of color,” says Preeti Vissa of the Greelining Institute, a nonprofit in Berkeley tracking the effects of the crisis across the nation. “We’re worried that it’s going to be devastating in terms of building wealth for communities and watching this wealth gap from between communities just grow.”

Wealth loss isn’t the only consequence of foreclosure. Vissa says others are more difficult to measure. “There’s stress and anxiety that comes from the foreclosure process – and this isn’t just a month or two. The average foreclosure takes something like 400 days,” Vissa explains. “That’s over a year of racking your brain, trying to figure things out. And the anxiety that comes with that has real health impacts. Research has begun to show the potentially devastating effects of foreclosure on the health of homeowners and their families.

Rosa Fernandez and her family have been feeling those effects in San Jose. When she bought her house there seven years ago, she felt like she was living the American Dream, she says.

Her house is in a quiet neighborhood, right on the corner of two small streets. Lining the edge of the house, bordering the small front lawn, are a few ceramic planters shaped like animals: a swan, a little sheep. The walls in the living room are painted brightly, orange and blue, and covered with framed photos of her kids – she’s got four sons and a daughter. It’s early evening and the kids are home. You can hear footsteps and giggling upstairs.

It’s a moment Fernandez started imaging when she first got married. “One day I have to have a house, my kids, and a dog,” she recalls telling herself back then. “Which I did! I went to Mexico and got a dog, a tiny little dog. And I had my dog, my five kids, and I bought my house.”

Fernandez bought her house in 2005 with a short-term fixed-rate mortgage, because she didn’t qualify for a long-term one. When she tried to refinance a few years later, the bank wouldn’t let her. Her monthly payments jumped to where she couldn’t handle them, even when she was working two jobs – as a social worker during the day, and at night doing customer service at the San Jose Airport. By that time she was a single mom, and it didn’t make things any easier. She went back and forth with the bank for months, but in the end they said they couldn’t help her.

Her house was scheduled to be auctioned on December 25, 2009. She remembers talking with the man from the bank. “I just started crying,” she says. “I started crying. I said, ‘I really, really need your help. I have five kids. Where the hell do I go with five kids?’”

The kids didn’t know where they would go either – and Fernandez says their problems started almost immediately. “I’d have to get them up in the morning and have to yell to them like, ‘Get up, you have to go to school! There’s nothing I can do, and I have to go to work.’” She says there was a lot of crying in the morning, which caused a lot of stress.

Her youngest son, Dominique, took it the hardest. Fernandez says he stopped talking to anyone at school and stopped doing his work. His teacher wanted him to see a counselor. He was nine years old.

“So I spoke to my son and he says, ‘No mom, everybody at school’s going to make fun of me. They’re going to think I’m crazy,’” Fernandez recalls. “And I said, ‘Mijo, in a way you are. In a way you’re going crazy.’” Fernandez says her son wouldn’t eat and had a stomachache for three months. She took him to a doctor, but the doctor didn’t find anything wrong with him. Still, Dominique complained of stomach pains and didn’t want to go to school.

Janis Bowdler says the Fernandez family is not alone. Bowdler is a researcher with the National Council of La Raza, an advocacy organization that recently released a study about the effects of foreclosure on Latino families around the country. The study found that going through a foreclosure affected every aspect of family life. “It’s hard not to just be shocked by the depth of anguish that families experience when they go through this,” says Bowdler.”

The study found that people were depressed, would fight with their spouses and children, and started skipping medication to save money. They also got divorced, lost their jobs, and their children suffered, too; their grades dropped, they withdrew from their friends and acted out in school. “Of the people that we interviewed,” Bowdler explains, “we didn’t talk to anybody who did not have some sort of health concern.”

La Raza’s study was based mostly on interviews, but there’s some data to back up their conclusions. Last fall, the Alameda County public health department collaborated with local nonprofit Causa Justa: Just Cause to survey nearly 400 families in East and West Oakland – mostly African American and Latino – about their experiences with foreclosure. The results were the same: depression, illness and stress, compounded by financial trouble that made treating those problems very difficult. But because there’s not very much research about how foreclosure affects health, right now communities aren’t very well equipped to deal with the issues that are coming up.

“That’s really an epidemic, and it’s a public health epidemic,” says Tammy Lee, who led the data collection for the study. “Just providing housing services is a challenge,” she continues. “Just providing mental health services is a need and a challenge. Bringing the two together? It doesn’t happen.”

Janis Bowdler, of the National Council of La Raza, says part of the problem is that the worst part of the foreclosure crisis isn’t over. And it won’t be for a while. “The policy debate right now is still very much focused on how do we stop the bleeding,” says Bowdler. “As it should be – we’re still only halfway through this crisis.”

As more research comes out, some people are trying to address these problems. Lena Robinson does community development outreach for the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco. Recently, she’s been holding workshops for housing counselors, nonprofits and community leaders in hard-hit places to try discussing solutions. She says there are cultural issues at play that make this even more difficult. “For many cultures, for many individuals, the idea of talking to a mental health professional or airing your shame around losing your home or losing your job – that’s really for some people something they’d never think about doing,” she says.

Robinson says an important part of starting that process is to help people put foreclosure in context, so that the experience doesn’t take over their entire lives. “People have got to recognize that this isn’t just a financial disruption in their life. It has emotional ramifications,” says Robinson. “And while you may not ever be able to get back those assets or be able to financially recover, it’s important to remember that there are other things in your life that are important.”

By her own account, Rosa Fernandez was lucky. Through a colleague at work, she found a nonprofit that dealt with the bank on her behalf. She ended up getting a modification – a 30-year, fixed-rate mortgage, with low interest. She and her kids could stay in their home. “After six months making payments, I said to my kids, ‘Let’s celebrate, it’s our house again, we’re going to be here for many, many years,’” she recalls.

She invited friends over for a barbeque, beer, and carne asada in the yard that was still theirs. She says everyone was happy. But it would be a long time before everything was back to normal.

Her son Dominique is ten years old now and in the fifth grade. He’s a small kid with messy hair and a big grin. Dominique is a little shy, but not overly so. Mostly he seems like a normal kid, even a pretty happy one. But Fernandez says he still worries about losing the house. His 12-year-old sister Roxanne notices, too.

“When we would buy something he’d say, ‘Mom, you’re spending way too much money, and he’d say you’re gonna lose the house, you’re gonna lose the house!’” Roxanne remembers. Fernandez says she thinks she understands what her son was going through.

“I’d go to work, act like nothing was happening – only a few people knew what I was going through. I used to come home, cook dinner, go to my room, lock my door, and I used to cry,” she remembers. “And that’s something I couldn’t let my kids see. Because I knew it was really hard for them.”

When we talk about houses, we’re often talking about money. We use words like “commodity,” “investment,” “collateral.” But sometimes a house is just what it’s always been: a corner of the world you know is yours, and the peace of mind that comes with that knowledge.

This story originally aired on February 9, 2011.