Alone in a battle over her loan
Vera Johnson, 42, the owner of the Village Green Perennial Nursery in West Seattle, is on the brink of losing her home and her business.
Seattle Times staff columnist
Vera Johnson answered the door and grimaced.
Nothing personal, she told me. Huge migraine.
"I think it's the stress," Johnson said, sitting back down on the couch to tell me her story. It's a private thing, an individual drama, but one I have heard time and again over the past few years.
Johnson, 42, the owner of the Village Green Perennial Nursery in West Seattle, is on the brink of losing her home and her business.
That means this two-acre oasis of dirt and green and blooms and bees, of Northwest natives and old-fashioned roses that have inspired a Full Tilt ice-cream flavor, could become a casualty.
It's not just a retail operation, but Johnson's home, and the home base for a near-decade of good deeds: donated veggie starts to the White Center Food Bank, school fundraisers, free gardening classes for children and adults, and music on the stage in the back yard.
"It's such a nightmare," Johnson said, and then did her best to give me the short version.
Her mother died. Her marriage fell apart. Her household income went down by $140,000 a year, and then her support payments were reduced by two-thirds.
Johnson decided to seek a loan modification on her Bank of America mortgage.
That was in March 2010.
The 16 months since, Johnson has searched and scrambled and sat on hold. She has explained her situation to one loan officer, then another who was sitting in the same office, but may as well have been in another country. She has faxed and FedExed documents once, twice, three times, had partial payments rejected and even watched a loan officer at her own Bank of America branch sit on hold for an hour and get nowhere.
Apparently, Johnson has to be in deeper trouble before the bank will toss her a rope. She wonders, though, if they are just setting her up to lose the place.
Last Monday, Johnson received a "Notice of intent to accelerate" from Bank of America. The bottom line: She would lose her house if she didn't come up with $14,888.99 by Aug. 6.
"I don't think they're really looking at what's happening in the economy," she said. "And I don't think that one more house in foreclosure is going to help."
She's probably right: The Treasury Department estimates there will be between 8 million and 13 million foreclosures by 2012.
I called Bank of America, told them what Johnson had told me. Within 20 minutes of my call, I received three emails from the bank, confirming Johnson's address and telling me they would be researching her case. By noon the next day, another email saying that Johnson is not in foreclosure, that the bank has attempted "several times" to help her with a modification, but that the "very specific" documentation has not been completed — including a quitclaim deed removing Johnson's ex-husband from the loan.
Johnson disputed this, saying she faxed the necessary documents at the end of June.
Four hours later, I talked to the bank's local spokeswoman, Britney Sheehan. The bank had the quitclaim deed they said Johnson hadn't sent.
Now do you get what people are going through? I asked.
"Yeah, I do understand," Sheehan said. "That's why we're leading with an apology."
The bank said it would have an associate from its new customer-assistance center in Seattle contact Johnson to "meet face to face" and walk her through the process. One single, local rep.
Other Bank of America customers may do the same, Sheehan said, whether it's for a mortgage, a credit card or a car loan. The center can be reached at 206-358-4338. (I tried it; they answered on the first ring.)
When this story first broke in the West Seattle Blog, one commenter called Johnson "the George Bailey of West Seattle," referring to the protagonist of "It's a Wonderful Life." Johnson watched the movie again to see the scene where people pour in from all over to fill up a basket of cash to help Bailey save his savings and loan.
"That would momentarily please the Bank of America," Johnson said, if she was so lucky. "But I don't see how paying them is going to encourage them to give me a loan modification. It will just continue."
In the meantime — and as is her way — Johnson is reaching out. At 4 p.m. on Sunday, she will host the first meeting of Homeowners Facing Foreclosure, a support group for others caught in the mortgage morass. It's at the nursery, 10223 26th Ave. S.W., and anyone can attend.
"I have no idea what it's going to look like, no answers for anyone," Johnson said. "It's just a way for people to get together and share resources and our stories and hopefully, move toward a solution.
"It takes people working together, rather than alone."
Nicole Brodeur's column appears Tuesday and Friday. Reach her at 206-464-2334 or email@example.com.
Let's see how it goes.
About Nicole Brodeur
My column is more a conversation with readers than a spouting of my own views. I like to think that, in writing, I lay down a bridge between readers and me. It is as much their space as mine. And it is a place to tell the stories that, otherwise, may not get into the paper.
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