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Ohio foreclosure prompts suicide attempt

Published Oct 9, 2008 9:19 PM

Scam artists who prey on the elderly are generally not able to elicit much public sympathy. Nor are they likely to get much assistance when they fall upon hard times. True or false?

That depends on whether it’s an individual predator or a corporate predator. Last month the troubled Federal National Mortgage Association—“Fannie Mae”—was deemed worthy of a $200-billion taxpayer bailout.

Fannie Mae is again in the spotlight after the suicide attempt of 90-year-old Addie Polk. On Oct. 1 this Akron, Ohio, widow shot herself in the chest rather than be put out of the home she and her late husband had lived in since 1970. Now Polk has been declared “the poster child for this foreclosure crisis we are facing” by Akron City Council President Marco Sommerville. (Akron Beacon Journal, Oct. 3)

The Polks purchased their home for $10,000 and paid off the initial mortgage in 1982. In 1994 Robert Polk, a retired rubber worker, passed away, and by 1997 Addie Polk had taken out a second mortgage for $21,000. She paid it off in 2001 by taking out another mortgage for $46,400, which she in turn refinanced again in 2004 with a $45,620 mortgage from the notorious and now defunct predator, Countrywide Home Loans.

This endless cycle of getting out of debt by going into more debt was explained by Mellanie Rittenour, who worked for MBNA America from 2000 until 2006. “It was required practice in the collections department to ask customers with credit card trouble if they owned a home. If the answer was ‘yes,’ the call was immediately transferred to the mortgage department. Failure to do so led to a dock in bonus pay.” (ABJ, Oct. 3)

Then the home is typically appraised above its market value, leaving the homeowner owing more than the house can possibly be sold for. This is how Addie Polk found herself in foreclosure in September 2007, after which Fannie Mae took over the loan from Countrywide. When the sheriff’s sale was conducted last June, Fannie Mae bought the home from itself for $28,000—though on the books Polk owed $45,000.

On Sept. 30 Polk confirmed by phone that she would be escorted from her home the next day. On Oct. 1 police came to her home, but after Fannie Mae representatives failed to appear, they began to leave. After hearing gunshots, a neighbor, using a ladder to get in a second-floor window, found Polk wounded. She was rushed to the hospital and is now recovering.

Fannie Mae now states it will forgive the mortgage and allow Polk to stay in her home. This action came about only after Cleveland Congressman Dennis Kucinich described the incident—“a human face for a great national tragedy”—on the House floor during the bailout debate. (ABJ, Oct. 3)

While one elderly woman’s nightmare may be over, the “great national tragedy” will undoubtedly drive more of those facing eviction and foreclosure to desperate acts. In the past year there have been a number of fatal suicides and murder-suicides tied to home loss in Oregon, Texas, Indiana and Massachusetts.

“Loss of a home ranks with loss of a close loved one and loss of a job as among the top causes of extreme stress and despair for people,” explained Dr. Bruce Cohen, professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, after the July suicide of Carlene Balderrama in Taunton, Mass. (ABC News Medical Unit, July 25)

There could well be more such tragedies in Ohio where the foreclosure rate is one of the highest in the country and the unemployment rate is second only to Michigan. Akron is one of the hard-hit areas in the state. According to Council President Sommerville there were 99 foreclosures in one month just on the city’s East Side where Polk lives. (ABJ, Oct. 3)

The twin crises of unemployment and home loss are not unrelated. While housing prices are lower in the Great Lakes region than in much of the U.S., the steel, auto and rubber bosses have destroyed jobs and driven down wages to the point that owning a home is now unaffordable for many.

The scenario of blocks and blocks with boarded-up houses has forced housing values to fall. This, combined with the predatory practices of mortgage lenders, has made it nearly impossible for working people to escape the cycle of debt.

Ohio activists have begun discussions on launching a campaign for a moratorium on foreclosures and evictions.