Patrick Robinson
White Center's Vera Johnson, who last year gained media attention in her fight with Bank of America over her mortgage has become something of a symbol for thousands of people facing the same plight.

A reluctant symbol of the mortgage mess, Vera Johnson is still underwater

When it became clear last summer that she was not going be able make her mortgage payment, Vera Johnson came to a realization. She was going to have to fight it. Her payment on her 30 year mortgage and the valuation on her property was so high that she was facing foreclosure.

As the West Seattle Herald reported in August, Johnson, a single mother of two and owner of Village Green Nursery, had attempted to get Bank of America to adjust her loan, an interest only 7 year ARM. But that process went badly. Repeated attempts to send in the appropriate paperwork were seemingly stymied.

Then the bank stopped accepting partial payments and began the foreclosure process in earnest, demanding more than $14,000 to prevent the process from going forward. Johnson, who could not make that payment posted a petition on that swiftly drew signers. Then the media picked up her cause. Stories appeared on local blogs, daily news websites, television and radio all detailing her ongoing struggle. Finally, Bank of America relented and adjusted her loan. But what they did is, for Johnson still a major issue. Instead of a 30 year loan, it became a 40 year loan. Instead of a fixed payment, the loan escalates by $200 per month more every year in October. Her $1700 payment will go to $2400 per month in four years. She believes she will never gain any equity in the home. She's still underwater. Her property was assessed at around $235,000. Her loan is for $390,000 meaning she's likely correct. Equity is a distant dream.

"I've already paid 9 years and now adding 40 years makes it a 50 year loan. So essentially I'm renting this house."

But her apparent "victory" has elevated her in the eyes of thousands who are facing similar crises.

This has led to her somewhat reluctant role as a symbol of the mortgage mess still being faced by so many. "As the problem keeps getting bigger and bigger all across the nation and so many people are not getting the help that they need, it means that I can't tell you how many people have sent me letters and emails and called about, 'Who can I call? Where can I go?"

Johnson keeps getting calls from reporters too including the Wall Street Journal this week because this issue is gaining momentum again. "The reason it is, is that Edward DeMarco, (Acting Director of the Federal Housing Finance Agency, and who oversees government owned mortgage giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac) believes that mortgage forbearance is a better solution than modification."

Forebearance means that in order to prevent foreclosure, a bank and the borrower make an agreement in which the lender delays their right to exercise foreclosure if the borrower can catch up to his payment schedule in an agreed upon time.

But many are calling for a writing down of the value of the underwater mortgages (those in which the borrower owes more than the property is worth) by the government since they believe the values were inflated by the last so-called real estate bubble. Even the Obama Administration is in favor of this approach brokering a $25 billion foreclosure settlement in February.

DeMarco has drawn a great deal of criticism for his stance with Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D) N.Y. and the New Bottom Line (a coalition of activitist groups) earlier this month calling for his firing. With 20% of the nation's mortgages out of balance DeMarco's desire to get borrowers to pay is having an affect on the larger economy.

Johnson traveled to Washington DC in early March as a representative of the Washington Citizens Action Network, taking with her people's stories about their own mortgage issues. They built a site where people can continue to post their stories. It shows that 238,476 Washington State homes are underwater as of March 29.

While she did not make it into the White House others from her group did, meeting with Gene Sperling, the Director of the National Economic Council, and delivered 85,000 petitions that call for Ed DeMarco to go. The coalition is calling for at least a $300 billion principal reduction.

But last summer, following her loan modification, Johnson did something that raised some eyebrows. She took a 3 week vacation to France, causing many to wonder if her financial troubles were real. She explained, "My aunt had died two years prior, and I had no idea there was any money in a trust. There was money that was left to my mom. My mom died a year and a half before this thing happened literally, like a check from God, the bank gave me a modification and a check came from the trust fund within a week or so. The money should have gone to my mom. The money was split between my brothers and I. So yes, I took a vacation. I took a dream of a lifetime trip to France for 3 weeks. A friend was teaching a cooking class there and I said, you know what? I am absolutely going to live my life. I just went through 3 of the hardest years of my life. I lost my marriage, I lost my mom and I almost lost my home. I deserved a week for every year of that stress."

Her new prominence as a symbol is not something she sought. In fact she's uncomfortable with it. "In high school when I had to get up in front of the class I wanted to vomit," Johnson said, "I do not like public speaking. But this is something that is like a gift that has been given to me to speak as an advocate for so many people across the nation. This isn't about me. This is about my neighbors losing their homes."

Johnson is moving ahead with plans for her business, her website is new and she's "open to a business partner," and is working on weddings and other events in the garden. She has two houses on the land (she rents one out). She thinks sometimes, "Why don't I find an investor, tear down both houses and put green Eco-Pods on here and turn this into a destination place, and I'm talking to somebody about that. It's talk right now. We'd put 5 or 6 small homes on the foot print (7/8ths of an acre) and making it like a 'Sleeping Lady Resort' over in Leavenworth, but I don't know. I have to see what feels right."

Through it all, she feels an odd kind of gratitude to the bank. "If you're in a relationship with someone who never has anything to give or offer and who doesn't show up? You want the hell out of it. So there's gratitude for forcing me to stand up for myself and to say no way, this is wrong. I won't take this. That's where my gratitude comes in."

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