Slow spiral into the debt trap: For one Lanesborough woman, losing her home of 28 years followed a perfect storm of woe
LANESBOROUGH — At high noon, Antonio J. Marcella opened the legs of a red "AUCTION TODAY" sign. He set it at the edge of a lawn as a line of men stood across Westview Road.
An arrow on the sign pointed to a ranch house with shutters and window boxes. Two outside lights glowed near an empty bird feeder.
Marcella grabbed papers and walked to the top of this home's short driveway. He began to read legal whys and wherefores.
"To wit," he said. "Parcel I. Beginning at the northeasterly corner of land ...."
No one listened, not even his mother, Mary Ann, who has assisted her son Tony at hundreds of foreclosures.
The words gave JPMorgan Chase Bank the power to take this house away from Janis L. Anderson, 28 years after she and her former husband, Dwayne, moved here with baby Peter, the first of their three sons.
Anderson remembers her first impressions of 28 Westview. "It was beautiful, cute, quaint," she said. "It had a nice yard. It was in good shape. I adored it. I still do."
That was in 1989, a generation ago.
She brought home two more babies, Joshua and Quentin, and they grew up with this Lanesborough hillside's promised views, on a lot laid out by John A. Newman in the late 1940s.
Years passed. Then, like countless others, their mother fell into the spiral of financial and personal troubles that on Sept. 6 brought bargain-hunters to her street to coldly appraise the condition of her roof.
Anderson could have taken her lunch break to attend, but she stayed away. Her son Joshua was inside with a friend, texting his mom updates at work.
Outside, it was over pretty quick.
The house the Andersons bought all those years ago from Dwayne's uncle for $76,500 sold back to its latest lender for $103,320, with not a single competing offer from the men on the street.
One bidder was back in his car before Marcella called "sold." For Janis Anderson, it would be a slower exit, but an end just the same.
Mary Ann Marcella helped her son pack up. Foreclosures, she offered quietly, run a narrow gamut of emotions. "From sad to horrible," she said.
Foreclosed homes are auctioned every few days in the Berkshires, eight years after the official end of the last recession, in June 2009.
In 2016, the number of new foreclosure petitions continued to rise in Berkshire County, in part because legal issues and regulatory intervention slowed the resolution of unpaid debt linked to the fall of the housing market, according to Timothy Warren, CEO of the Warren Group in Boston, a real estate data firm.
"My gut feeling is that what we're seeing [involved] mortgages that have been delinquent for a long time," he said. "They started to build up in the pipeline."
But the number of foreclosures could also be tied to economic distress in the region itself, said Brad Gordon, executive director of the Berkshire County Regional Housing Authority. It wasn't subprime lending that tripped up many borrowers.
It was not making enough money, for a variety of reasons, including job losses like those that will result from the shuttering of Country Curtains. Roughly half of the company's 360 employees work in the Berkshires.
"This is just purely an economic malaise driving them to foreclosure," Gordon said of some of the borrowers who come to a counseling program his agency runs. "They're just not making enough to keep up. The trend line is still one that is going up."
From 66 foreclosure petitions in Berkshire County in 2013, that tally rose to 116 in 2014 to 198 in 2015 to 223 last year, when 97 properties went on the block.
As of Aug. 31, 148 foreclosure petitions had been filed this year in the county.
Anderson came to Gordon's program, seeking help. She started meeting with Jim Hamilton, a foreclosure prevention counselor, in 2013.
Like Gordon, Hamilton suspects foreclosures will continue to roil Berkshires communities.
"I don't think it's going to slow down, not in 2017. Why would it?" he asked. "The banks have less incentive to modify [loans] going forward."
Getting out of trouble on a delinquent mortgage comes down to one thing, really, Hamilton said: Having enough income to convince a lender to rewrite the mortgage on terms the borrower can sustain.
"It's long, complex and irritating," he said of the foreclosure process. "Without an influx of energy, there's not a happy ending to this story."
People who lose their homes already know hardship. That's because most stray into default by losing their jobs, divorcing a spouse or falling ill.
"When that happens, it's very hard if not impossible to save homeownership," Gordon said.
That wasn't news to Janis Anderson.
It started with divorce. After sharing their Lanesborough home for two decades, Janis and Dwayne went separate ways. At least he did; she remained on Westview Road, with her youngest still in high school.
"I went from a dual income to single income," Anderson said.
In 2010 she was working as an administrative assistant in human resources at General Dynamics in Pittsfield, making what she felt was decent money. Though her ex-husband's name remained on the mortgage, she alone was paying against the loan. He contributed child support, but Anderson fell behind on her mortgage payments.
"My bad, but I stuck my heels in the ground," she said. "As time went on they started the foreclosure process."
That was just the first time — and she managed to win time.
With help from the state attorney general's office, Anderson secured a loan modification from Chase. It came through in November 2012.
"I represent to the Lender and agree," a statement in the modification read, "I am experiencing a financial hardship."
It was a small victory. Her overall payments, Anderson recalls, dropped by $121 a month, from $1,294 to $1,173. The mortgage itself called for monthly payments of $852.23 into the year 2042, based on a new principal balance of $184,021.44 — more than $100,000 above the home's purchase price in 1989.
When she and Dwayne moved to Lanesborough 23 years before, the monthly bite was far less, just $575, including taxes and insurance.
But over time, halfway to paying off their first mortgage, the couple refinanced, Anderson said, once drawing out equity for a kitchen project, with new cabinets and flooring.
They took out a loan with an Adams bank for 30 years, then jumped to a mortgage with Wells Fargo, then to Chase on a $156,208 loan signed Oct. 5, 2007.
With two incomes still, they made ends meet, as monthly payments ticked up.
They used proceeds to remodel space in the basement to create another bedroom a child. Then came a new furnace and track lighting. Back then, she was working for the Berkshire Natural Resources Council — until she was laid off.
Even paying $121 less a month, with her 2012 modification, took pressure off, Anderson said. Her youngest, Quentin, was starting school at Lasell College in Newton. She was contributing $500 a month to that, but had seen her salary at General Dynamics climb to nearly $50,000.
"I was skipping along and making the payments. I was making it work," she said.
New trouble was just months away. On March 1, 2013, the federal government adopted terms of the American Taxpayer Relief Act, imposing "sequestration" on spending.
"I worked for a defense company and they set about reducing overhead," Anderson said. "Me being in human resources, I was overhead."
She manages a laugh. She was laid off from General Dynamics that month.
"I went from 50 to zero real quick," she said.
With no job, Anderson decided to file a second time for personal bankruptcy. She and her husband had filed for relief from consumer debt Dec. 13, 1995.
The new papers went through July 5, 2013. Anderson, now filing as a single person, listed assets of $100,001 to $500,000 and liabilities in the same range. She named 16 creditors including Home Depot, Culligan of Berkshire County, O'Connell Oil Co., Dominion Retail, Toyota Motor Credit and Walmart.
She reported having $40 in cash and $300 in a checking account.
One worksheet in Anderson's bankruptcy petition showed the difference between her monthly expenses and income to be $12 — in her favor.
The bankruptcy court did not free her from her mortgage debt. Nine months after her loan modification, the amount owed on the Westview Road house had climbed, as of July 31, 2013, to $186,315.83. With other "encumbrances" the total was $190,972.30, according to documents obtained from the U.S. Bankruptcy Court.
At the time, the "liquidation value" of the house was calculated to be $124,007.06. That was the estimated fair market value minus the cost of selling it.
Though she was freed from consumer debt, Anderson's home wasn't in the clear. An order by Judge Henry J. Boroff on Oct. 1, 2013, allowed Chase to the right to foreclose, based on its original loan and the 2012 modification.
Anderson was still managing to pay toward her son's college tuition, but felt things sliding away.
"I said, `OK, the bank should be coming to take the house pretty soon.' "
Actually, it would be another four years.
She landed a job at $15 an hour at Pittsfield's highway department, eventually making three-fifths of her former pay. But she was out of work for a spell. Her 2013 bankruptcy filing notes an income of $47,800 in 2012. The next year, she made $11,620.
Hoping to head off a second threatened foreclosure, she began working with Hamilton, the counselor who runs the Berkshire County Regional Housing Authority program.
"He did everything for me, but Chase still told him no," Anderson said.
Hamilton says he works with many clients Anderson's age, who've been in their homes for years. "Sadly, a lot of people I deal with are older. It brooks no safe harbor," he said of foreclosure.
Along the way, Anderson joined a class action lawsuit with other Chase borrowers based on faulty disclosures by the bank.
"They sent me a check for $3.83," she said. "I cashed it."
War of letters
Dunning letters from the bank arrived regularly. She found a blue folder and it became a sort of scrapbook of her financial fall.
She brought it out one day recently to her kitchen table — a four-inch-thick binder stuffed with green and pink sticky notes. One document detailed her attempt to win another loan modification, this one in 2015.
A chart logged calls she'd made to the bank, in her handwriting.
Dates and times. "Called to say decision was made. No," she jotted down Sept. 6, 2014.
With Hamilton's help, she tried again in 2015, as her folder ballooned.The log chronicles an ever-changing list of customer service reps.
Other mail brought offers for refinance deals, some promising to get payments down to $350 a month. "If it sounds too good to be true," Anderson said, "then it probably isn't."
One letter arrived from a place calling itself the Home Retention Department. It was designed to look like a check ready to cash. "It's a scam, there's no doubt about it."
"Emergency mortgage relief," trumpeted another offer. How about a monthly payment of $390.08, it pitched, with a new "potential" loan balance of $128,000.
She's been looking forward to burning the whole stack.
Anderson had growing doubts about her ability to keep her house, especially because penalties and delinquent payments were pushing the debt to close to three times the home's original purchase price.
But even on her new pay, she felt she could get square on the loan, if it could be modified again.
"How about $750 for the rest of my life? I'd be willing to pay that," she said, sitting at her kitchen table.
As of this month, Anderson hadn't paid against the mortgage in four years, not since a month after losing her job at General Dynamics.
"Sometimes I almost feel guilty for squatting. It hits me once in awhile. And sometimes it is a shameful feeling," she said. "Some people don't care. I care. But why wouldn't I stay here? Why wouldn't I? If they don't tell me I have to leave, I won't leave. These things happen. It's unfortunate. What is shameful is the idea of the banks wanting to work with you, when in reality they don't."
She adds, "It's shameful that it's gone on this long."
Her older sister, Paula Loyer, of Pittsfield, counsels her on that guilt business.
"I don't think she should feel guilty," Loyer said in a telephone interview. "Where can she go? It's not feasible, really, to go anywhere. If she had the money she'd be paying the mortgage."
"She's struggled going through this, putting one foot in front of the other," Loyer said of her sister. "Going to work and keeping her head up."
And coming home, of course, to the home Anderson knew could be taken from her at any time. Last winter, a legal notice emerged, the first step in the process that led to this month's auction.
"I'm flabbergasted that the bank waited so long to do anything," she said. "It's going to be four years this year since I made my last payment and they haven't done anything."
One afternoon last spring, back at her kitchen table, Anderson seemed resigned to losing her house, but not entirely.
"It's God's will at the end of the day. What's going to happen is going to happen," she said. But maybe fate would break her way. "Who knows? Chase could fold," she said, laughing. "They could lose my paperwork and forget all about me. Or, you know what? They could just say, `You can keep the house.' "
The odds of that, she was asked?
"Slim to none. I simply do not make enough money," she said. "I do have faith when the time comes it will all work out. That's what I hope. That's my faith."
She has had doubts, too.
"It's a nice little two-bedroom ranch that is now in the hole for some $200,000 — and it's not worth $100,000," Anderson said. Given the bank's bid Sept. 6, she wasn't far off on that. Other homes on the street have failed septic inspections, so she warns that the next owner, or the seller, may be in for a costly repair.
Taped to a wall in her kitchen hung a note that her son Quentin had left for her. He was back at home after graduating with a degree in communications from Lasell in May. The message was about optimism. He wrote that his mother is an authentic person who inspires him.
When the third most-common cause of foreclosure arrived, Anderson's tenancy on Westview Road was already in jeopardy.
Now it was her life.
She was diagnosed with bladder cancer in August 2015. The following winter, she had a tumor removed and underwent chemotherapy.
Given her Native American heritage, she'd also embraced rituals from her Oneida culture, including prayers and use of peyote medicine.
Tests this year show her to be clear of any recurrence of the cancer. Her blood work has looked good, she said.
For months now, Anderson has been searching for apartments. She had hoped to find a two-bedroom, so her sons or grandchildren can stay over. She worries her credit history will hurt her prospects, and recoils at the prices for rentals in the best Pittsfield neighborhoods.
That's a well-known issue to Gordon, the regional housing authority chief.
She's been wondering where she'll put things she's accumulated over her 28 years in Lanesborough.
The phrase "a wing and a prayer" has been coming into her thoughts. And this house has as well.
"It was a beautiful neighborhood for the kids to grow up in," she said.
"I want to have closure, one way or another," she said earlier this year.
It came Sept. 6.
After the legal preliminaries, Marcella, the auctioneer, looking at a familiar group of bidders, asked, "Any questions that I can't answer?"
"Give me a $100,000?" he asked. Then he broke into his auctioneer's sing-song. "Hundred thousand dollars I want, give me a hundred thousand," he called out.
"How about $105,000?" he asked. "Am I going the wrong way?"
After a beat, his mother, Mary Ann, representing Chase on this day, called out the bank's predetermined figure, the lowest it would take for the property.
No other offer came. The bank is expected to eventually list the home for sale.
"It's another sad day for these people," Tony Marcella said of the Andersons.
Once the auction cleared out, Joshua Anderson, 26, came to the door at 28 Westview.
He said he believes the closure his mother's been seeking is at hand.
"At the end of the day, there's a lot of juju here," he said of the house. "You've got to move forward."
He feels that his father, an electrician, is also mourning the pending loss of the property, after doing a lot of the work on it himself.
But all the Andersons possess memories. "I learned how to kiss out there," Joshua said, pointing.
"I would love to see this home go to a new family," he said. "That's my thought on it. These things happen, as far as interest rates and the economy in 2008, and then my mom losing her really good job. These things happen. So it's how we react."
"It's definitely traumatizing in a sense for my mother. We're creatures of habit. This is her comfort zone," he said.
Old friends have been coming to say hello to him — since his return from Hawaii after four years — and to take their own leave of the house. "My friends are more emotional than I am," Joshua said. "This has been their hangout spot. Everyone's hangout spot. They say, `I can't believe this is your childhood home and it's going.' "
"This was a great place to raise her three boys," said Paula Loyer, Anderson's sister. "She loved her home — and still does."
The way Janis Anderson sees it, in her best moments, good things do lie ahead.
"Thank God I'm not ill," she said. "I'm just poor."
Reach staff writer Larry Parnass at 413-496-6214 or @larryparnass.
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