In 1974, Clarence and Betty Johnson bought a house on the 600 block of Clovis Avenue in Capitol Heights. Over 35 years later, the couple is out of that house, as the foreclosure crisis engulfed their dream of owning their home outright.

While many in the county fell prey to sub-prime mortgages and predatory lender, the Johnsons were victims to illness, ignorance and the economy. Their story is a cautionary tale of how honest hard-working people succumbed to the foreclosure nightmare as well.

“I never knew society could be so cruel,” Betty Johnson said. “How can you treat human beings like this? I’ve worked and slaved and paid taxes only to get thrown to the wolves.”

A long fight with Bank of America over the collateral damage of the foreclosure continues for Mrs. Johnson. She’s been in and out of Prince George’s County Circuit Court, federal court and the state court of appeals for close to a year now. She’s even filed a $125 million defamation suit against the bank. She says she was misrepresented in court and that this entire fight could have been prevented.

“For what they’ve done to us, with as long as we have worked, isn’t right,” Johnson said. “They’re a bank. They could’ve settled this a long time ago.”

What compounds the situation is Clarence’s condition. He is bound to a hospital bed in the bedroom of their small Suitland apartment after a stroke in 1999 left irreparable damage to his nervous system. He can’t move much, doesn’t speak much, and breathes with the aid of an oxygen machine.

Betty never handled the mortgage payments so she wasn’t very knowledgeable about how the household bills worked. Her miseducation to how the entire process worked contributed to the loss of their home as well.

“That’s the reason I’m fighting so hard,” Johnson said. “They took advantage of me and my sick husband. I’m back-and-forth fighting with the bank while my husband is fighting for his life.”

In 2007, the Johnsons finally sold their home, but all profits from the settlement went to the bank. Now, as Johnson clings to memories of the past with a healthy husband and a full house, she gets emotional thinking about how quickly everything changed.

“We’ve been married 50 years,” she said. “He worked 25 years in the federal government and I worked 31. He gets totally disabled and now I have to go through all of this.”

The state of Maryland has put in safeguards to help residents through situations the Johnson’s experienced. The Maryland Foreclosure Mediation Program forces both lenders and homeowners to be more responsive when foreclosure is imminent. The goal is to make sure alternatives are explored before a family loses its home.

“gives borrowers the information they need at an early stage, and gives every Maryland family the right to have access to their lenders when they feel they are unfairly denied a loan modification or other mitigation option,” Gov. Martin O’Malley said in a statement. “ This legislation will help keep more Marylanders in the homes they worked hard to purchase.”

Right now, Johnson says she hopes that her story keeps another family out of this situation. She said she was willing to share so other people can know what can happen to them.

“Maybe somebody else can benefit from this,” Johnson said. “I’m not a selfish person and I never was. Don’t mistreat or misuse nobody because it’s coming back around to you.”

 

George Barnette

Special to the AFRO