(March 2011 photo of Village Green’s Vera Johnson during West Seattle for Japan fundraiser)
By Tracy Record
West Seattle Blog editor
Driving to Village Green Perennial Nursery from the south edge of West Seattle, there’s a yellow sign about a block before you get there, pointing to a property involved in a foreclosure auction.
Village Green owner Vera Johnson is fighting tooth and nail to keep a sign like that from appearing outside the 26th Avenue SW site where she has lived, worked, and organized community events for eight years.
Vera took her struggle public a few nights ago, by launching an online petition at change.org and asking for support. But this is not a tale of “woe is me, somebody save me.” This is a tale of an entrepreneur who is also a longtime community advocate, and with those instincts, trying to make sure her battle yields help and support for the many others she is learning are going through the same thing.
It is also a tale of fighting against a big bank that she says has frustrated and complicated her attempts to do the right thing and get her loan “modified” while she struggles to get on her feet after a life change that suddenly slashed her household income.
We talked with Vera Monday afternoon in the garden that fronts her home and nursery, with century-old firs in the corner. We wondered what she was hearing since going public with her petition.
“I’m hearing that more people than we know about are going through this,” including some who have been caught up in it for two years, and others who have lost their homes. “Not many people are talking about it – that’s the most disturbing thing to me.”
The simple question of where her situation stands turns out not to have a simple answer. Long story semi-short, she started seeking “loan modification” in March of last year, through a program not directly involved with Bank of America, who holds her mortgage, and she says it took eight months for them to reject her. “I was trying to proactively deal with it before I was in a really difficult situation; (at the time) I was getting substantial spousal support.”
Then, she started trying to work directly with B of A, paying “what I could afford to pay. … I figured, if they’re going to take my money, at least I’m doing something.” The bank assigned a representative to her case, she says: “Carlos started calling me four or five times a week, helping me expedite the paperwork that they needed. Six times, I supplied my tax forms; they kept saying they lost them.”
That theme recurs in her recounting of what has happened – repeated requests for forms she had already sent, one bank rep not seeming to know what the other had already received or requested.
Two months ago, in May, she tried to make a $2,000 payment at a B of A branch, and says they wouldn’t take it. Branch staffers kept trying to reach someone in the company, including Carlos, to sort the situation out. “Finally we left a message on Carlos’s voice mail, and the next day he called me back and said they had locked my payments and were not accepting any from me, because I needed to be (a certain amount) behind to get into active loan modification. … Carlos explains this to me, I’m thinking, that’s crazy, why can’t I make a partial payment?”
Then, Vera says, “Carlos disappeared, and now Hilda is calling me, not as often as Carlos, and I’m resubmitting paperwork I had already done with Carlos,” including a “quit claim” document showing that her ex-husband has given up his interest in the property – to re-send that, she had to track him down as he concluded a multi-week commercial-fishing trip. She says she faxed that to B of A from one of their local offices, has confirmation, and then – last Thursday – “I’m standing here in the driveway getting ready for the White Center Garden Tour, and a guy goes by, looking lost.” He finally parks and comes over. “He says he’s from Titanium Solutions, ‘an affiliate of Bank of America,’ and ‘they asked me to give you these documents.’ They’re the same ones I’ve done at least four times before. (He says,) ‘They’ve been trying to get a hold of you and can’t reach you.’ What? They have my phone, e-mail address … I told him I’d try calling Hilda. He said OK, and left.” But not before taking a photo – for appraisal, she believes he said.
The next day, Hilda called her back and said Vera’s loan-modification file had been closed because the documents Vera insisted she sent hadn’t been received. More back-and-forth ensued. Vera then filed a complaint with the federal Office of the Comptroller of the Currency – the second one since all this started.
Next time she heard from Hilda, “she asked me, ‘did you get our settlement agreement?’ I said, ‘what settlement agreement?’ She said, ‘Did you get our letter saying you need to catch up?’ I said, ‘I wouldn’t be as far behind as I am if I had been able to make payments and not been locked up’.”
The letter arrived Monday. Vera pulled it out of her purse as we spoke. Bank of America will no longer take partial payments – she has to give them $14,888.99 plus late fees and other charges. She reads from the letter: “‘The default will not be considered cured unless Bank of America receives these funds. If the default is not cured, the mortgage payments will be accelerated and become due and payable and foreclosure proceedings will be initiated’.”
What now? She’s not sure. “I really don’t know who to contact.” But she’s trying everything she can to find out. She’s even planning to start a support group for others going through the same thing – more on that later. And she started the change.org petition after reading about a soldier “who’s been serving our country and the bank is kicking him out of his house because he’s been unable to make his payment, though he had asked the bank to hold off on foreclosure.” She says she read everything that had led up to the predicament, and realized, “Oh my God, that’s my story.”
Here’s what’s at stake for her. The Village Green site has long been a nursery – for 25 years before Vera and her then-husband bought it eight years ago. The house on the site is three bedrooms, going on a century old. She lives there with her kids, 14 and 9. They are homeschooled, and that was the spark for one of her many community endeavors – co-founding the Homeschool Family Learning Center based out of Southwest Community Center. “90 families are involved now!” Vera says proudly.
Overall, though, she’s reticent to tick off the many things with which she’s been involved – not easy for a small business when money and time are in short supply. She’s donated plants to fundraisers like this one last Mother’s Day weekend at West Seattle Montessori (WSB sponsor):
The very next day, she and pie goddess Kate McDermott (at right with Vera in the photo below) put on a Mother’s Day Pie Social at the nursery, benefiting the White Center Food Bank:
She hosted an ice-cream social with White Center-founded Full Tilt Ice Cream just last month, raising money for WC Food Bank, which is also the beneficiary of her daughter’s birthday wishes: “Ever since she was eight, instead of birthday gifts, she asks for bags of food for the White Center Food Bank.”
She teaches and coaches permaculture and other gardening/growing arts – “I’m really focused on people trying to learn how to plant things properly, and I teach folks the importance of planting for water needs. I’m very focused on buying (stock) from local independent growers, and supporting women-owned businesses … everything I buy is local.” As we talk, more of what she’s involved with starts to emerge … including biodiversity (steps into her front yard, you’ll see the “wildlife habitat” sign) and organic gardening.
And now, she’s organizing a group of others going through the same thing, with the first meeting planned for this weekend.
What kind of help does Vera herself need right now? “Help me figure out what my resources are, and how to deal with this. I am overwhelmed … I don’t even know what I have to do,” to manage the situation. Aside from, in the short run, pony up $14,000 she doesn’t have. And deal with calls from multiple arms of B of A – “including the debt-collector side, six times in four days. I told them, ‘I’m at work, you want me to pay my debt, then stop calling me at work all day!'”
What’s clearly the most frustrating aspect of this for Vera is that she set out trying to do the responsible thing – paying what she could, trying to “modify” her loan terms – and that seems to have been for naught. But she’s not giving up. She has been heartened to hear and read the words of support from people who “look at me like an asset to the community, an active community member.”
You can add words of support, for starters, when you “sign” the online petition – find it here. And if you want to contact Vera to offer advice, or find out about the support group for others in similar situations, you can reach her through the Village Green Perennial Nursery contact info – find it all here.