Mary Bonelli hardly knew anyone among the 40 or so people clustered in front of her two-story brick home in Belmont-Cragin.
"They're all strangers," she said. "It means a lot knowing that I am not alone."
The "strangers" were from Chicago's Communities United Against Foreclosure and Eviction. They had gathered to protest Bonelli's forthcoming eviction from her home and support her as she announced her plans to stay, despite the foreclosure.
"Today, I am out of legal options, but I still have the option to stay here and fight for my house, as long as all of you will fight with me," Bonelli told the crowd on Jan. 16.
Earlier that day, Bonelli found out her name was being put on the Cook County sheriff's eviction list, meaning she could be thrown out of her home any day now. But she hasn't left, nor does she plan to. She, along with volunteers from Communities United Against Foreclosure and Eviction, are also planning to have an eviction blockade, where people block the sheriff’s department from accessing the home to remove Bonelli.
Rebecca Burns, a volunteer with Communities United Against Foreclosure and Eviction, told The Chicago Reporter today in an email that the group is developing a phone tree of neighbors and supporters who would participate in the eviction blockade.
"We are hoping that the bank will agree to negotiate before the situation reaches this point, but Mary's neighbors will not stand by while a 76-year-old woman with no place else to go is evicted," Burns said.
Bonelli said a bank error triggered the foreclosure of her home. Apparently, Fifth Third bank's automatic payment system that was supposed to deduct her mortgage payment each month stopped working. Even though she said the money is still sitting in her bank account, the foreclosure went through quickly, and the home was sold to the Federal National Mortgage Association, Fannie Mae, in October 2012.
Representatives from Fifth Third Bank and Fannie Mae did not respond to emails and voicemails from The Chicago Reporter asking for comment on Bonelli's case.
Bonelli's grandparents bought the home at 2334 N. Mason Ave. in 1921, and three generations of her family have lived there. She was born in Chicago and has lived in this house since 1958. Losing her home would be heartbreaking. But she's not going to back down from fighting what she says is a fraudulent foreclosure.
"I'm not afraid. Let them throw me in jail," she said. "I'm old and sick, and I got no place to go."
Bonelli is 76, can no longer walk and has cancer. While talking as she sat on the front porch, she removed two rubber bands wrapped around an Elizabeth Taylor White Diamonds box. She lifted the lid, revealing dozens of containers of her medications. One for high blood pressure, others were for heart and lung problems. The stress of the foreclosure and eviction have made her health problems worse. She couldn't attend the last court date because she had severe chest pain.
"You can't eat. You can't sleep," said Bonelli. "It's been terrible."
Bonelli says she paid a lawyer $2,500 upfront to fight the foreclosure, but instead of petitioning to get the case thrown out, he went along with the foreclosure and then dropped her case. Her attorneys later told the Reporter that by the time they took her case, there was not much that could be done.
As a result, her case went through the system quickly, instead of taking months or even years like many Illinois foreclosures.
Bonelli connected with the Communities United group through an old neighbor, Sabrina Morey, when they were at the local currency exchange. Morey, who is a member of the group, calls Bonelli her “adopted grandmother.”
When Morey heard about what was going on with her neighbor’s home, she was determined to help her “grandmother” fight.
Bank officials have told Bonelli that it was "too late" to stop the foreclosure, even though she says the money was always there in her bank account and she has contacted the bank to try to pay several times, to no avail. She also attempted to get a loan modification to avoid foreclosure, but it was denied. Morey says the bank could choose to stop the foreclosure if they wanted to, but haven't.
"It's never too late," said Morey. "I think that's a bunch of crap."
Burns, the Communities United volunteer, said that while Bonelli's specific circumstances aren't common, many other homeowners have been foreclosed upon in error, but banks are reluctant to stop proceedings.
“It defies reason that banks would rather continue foreclosing than admit wrongdoing, but federal programs to prevent foreclosure have not adequately addressed the substantial incentives that mortgage servicers have to foreclose rather than negotiate,” said Burns.
And now that Fannie Mae owns the home, it’s even more difficult to negotiate.
Burns said that Bonelli’s case is part of a national campaign to clean up Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac practices.
“All across the country, there are cases like Mary's where Fannie and Freddie are blocking negotiations that would allow a homeowner to remain in their home,” she said.
Burns pointed to a recent case in Springfield, Mass. where Fannie Mae decided to negotiate with a homeowner for a potential buy-back deal, rather than evict them, after the homeowner staged an eviction blockade.
Bonelli is grateful to Communities United for giving her the idea to fight for her home. Through the entire process of foreclosure, she's felt alone, but not now.
As the crowd dispersed, they continued to chant, yelling “Who's house? Mary's House!”
“My house!” shouted Bonelli, her voice a bit hoarse, but a smile on her face.
*Chicago Reporter intern Natasha Hemley contributed to this report.