This story started out as a tragedy.
Another poor woman caught up in the bureaucracy of low-income housing assistance, unhelpful government agencies and an unexpected foreclosure. Add unpaid back taxes and Freddie Mac to the saga, and Constance Coleman, 52, faced being put out on the street.
But instead, it's a victory—of sorts. Coleman will not be evicted, but she will have to move from the house she’s been in for several years and a community she’s lived in for 28 years. More worrisome for her is where her grandson, whom she cares for, will go to school once they move.
So how did Coleman, who works two jobs, end up here? She paid her rent. She had a place to live. She didn't cause problems.
It started when Coleman signed a lease for 560 N. Pinecrest Road, a modest ranch house in Bolingbrook. As a Section 8 tenant, she and the Housing Authority of Joliet met with Joseph McCaffery, lawyer based in Aurora representing the owners of the house, to sign a year-long lease in December 2009.
What she didn't know then was that the mortgage hadn't been paid since July, and within a year, the house would be in foreclosure. Although Coleman got letters and notices at the house from the county, she never read any of them. Instead, she said she forwarded them to the same place she had been sending her rent checks--McCaffery's office.
It wasn't until July 2011 that Coleman got another notice--this time, taped to her door--that her house would be sold at auction by the Will County Sheriff's Office. It was a complete shock.
She called a hotline for tenants at the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. She said she was told she could stop paying her portion of the rent--$349 a month--and to wait until the new owners of the house contacted her after the auction.
She stopped paying. She waited. And during that time, she tried to let the Housing Authority of Joliet know what was going on and get her security deposit.
Neither was very fruitful. She informed the housing agency, but it continued the house's subsidy, which were being garnished by the United States Treasury to pay off about $145,000 in federal and state taxes that, according to the Kane County Recorder of Deeds, McCaffery owes.
And when Coleman looked into McCaffery, she found out some other surprising information. According to the Illinois Attorney Registration and Disciplinary Commission, the lawyer had had his license suspended for a year by the commission in 1999 and had an open complaint against him alleging that he used money intended to benefit a young accident victim for personal expenses. Coleman told the the commission her story, and she said it is continuing to investigate him.
Jim Grogan, spokesman for the commission, said the organization is unable to comment whether a further investigation into McCaffery is ongoing. McCaffery said he was unable to respond to any questions about the current complaint against him or any other investigations.
McCaffery, for his part, informed me that renting a house that's in foreclosure is not illegal, and he's right. In Chicago, a landlord is required to inform a prospective tenant that the property is in foreclosure, but outside the city, that law doesn't apply. In addition, it's not a breach of a Section 8 contract to default on a mortgage. McCaffery claimed he kept Coleman's security deposit because she didn't pay her rent after she found out the unit was in foreclosure.
I asked Jessica De Loach, Coleman's caseworker at the Housing Authority of Joliet, about that. She said the housing agency relies on landlords to contact them if tenants aren't paying rent. De Loach said McCaffery never contacted the agency to say Coleman wasn't paying or took her to court to evict her.
McCaffery said Coleman's rent payment wasn't enough money to pursue legal action.
De Loach also noted that her supervisors have been trying to contact McCaffery for the last several months, but he's never returned their calls. McCaffery stated he no longer has any dealings with the housing agency and has no reason to contact them.
In September 2011, 560 N. Pinecrest Road was bought by Federal Home Loan Mortgage Corporation--Freddie Mac. Coleman got calls from some real estate agents at Baird and Warner, saying they wanted to speak to her about her tenancy. Everyone assured her that it would be possible to stay in her home. A few months later, Freddie Mac even sent out a contractor to do some needed repairs so it would pass a HUD inspection.
Then, everything changed. Coleman got an eviction notice in February.
What happened? Coleman reached out to Baird and Warner. They didn't know. She called the Housing Authority of Joliet. They couldn't explain what happened with Freddie Mac and instead told Coleman she should start shopping for a new apartment.
Coleman even called back the Illinois Attorney Registration and Disciplinary Commission to explain her current woes. She said that lead counsel Alicia Duncan asked around and found that Freddie Mac didn't want any part of a new lease after they found out that the housing agency had continued to make payments toward McCaffery's tax lien until April of this year, nearly a year after the house had been taken from his clients' possession.
I asked a lot of questions about this. Freddie Mac spokesman Brad German said he sympathized with Coleman's story but referred questions about the failed lease to the Housing Authority of Joliet. I talked to Coleman's caseworker at the housing agency. She referred me to her supervisor Joyce Johnson, who hasn't yet answered my questions.
The whole problem was a bit maddening to Coleman. Freddie Mac is owned by the government, the taxpayers. Housing subsidies are paid by the government, the taxpayers. Couldn't these two organizations just put their heads together and work out something, instead of paying lawyers to evict her?
A few weeks after I started looking into this story, Coleman got a lawyer, William Moore. He's been doing his best, he said, to make sure she doesn't end up homeless.
He recently brokered a deal with Freddie Mac to give Coleman $5,000 in a "cash for keys" deal that will help her relocate. And the Housing Authority of Joliet said it would extend her voucher, now expired, so she could find a new place to live.
So, Coleman won't be homeless. But she isn't sure where she'll be or where her grandson will be going to school. People are encouraging her to look elsewhere, like Joliet or Chicago's South suburbs, where rents are cheaper.
But Coleman said she doesn't want to leave Bolingbrook or take her grandson to a community that has more crime or poorer schools. And given that housing vouchers were created so that low-income people could live in communities with better resources, I can't blame her.
She hasn't gotten back the security deposit she sent to McCaffrey's office. She's out lawyer's fees for paying Moore, who's trying to help her recover that security deposit. And she's spent months, countless phone calls, faxes and voice mail messages, fighting agencies that are supposed to exist to help her find stable housing.
While Coleman's exact situation is unique, her type of story is common. The layers of red tape and bureaucracy many low-income people have to deal with when getting assistance, much less keeping that assistance when something goes wrong, are extensive. And it often comes down to this: Are the people they talk to willing to help them?
It seems that often the answer is no. Coleman is just another poor person without much power asking for help in an overburdened system that doesn't have time to care. She, at least, had the knowledge and stamina to put up a fight.
But when someone with power inquires--a lawyer, a reporter--those same folks often change their tune rather quickly. In short, nobody wants an ugly story about a grandma being thrown out on the streets with her young grandson in tow.
I asked Moore about this.
“Sometimes when you apply a little pressure, when you have a lot of eyes looking at a situation, I think sometimes it helps,” he said. “I do believe that her housing counselor, Miss De Loach--I believe that she was trying to do everything she could to assist, but I also believe that the fact that you contacted them and I contacted them that that helped to put this thing back on track”
But how many Constance Colemans are there out there? How many of them have the guts or even the time to fight what's happening to them?
It's a good question, but I don't know the answer.
© Community Renewal Society 2012
Photo credit: Lucio Villa