Let Ms. Mary Ward tell you her life story. She’s talkative, for sure, and a touch feisty.
Standing all of a diminuitive 5-feet tall, Ms. Ward has lived through enough in her 82 years to fill five novels: She recalls as a little girl, washing the feet of her great grandfather, a sharecropper and a former slave, each morning as he would return from the fields. She has lived through the Great Depression, Jim Crow America, and has modeled on movie sets alongside Lena Horne.
In the 50s, she worked as an elevator operator at Abraham & Straus, what is now Macy’s on Fulton Street in Brooklyn. From the 50s through the 90s, it was life as a mother, a grandmother, and then a great grandmother.
But it is now, as an octogenarian and a devoted Jehovah's Witness living in Bedford-Stuyvesant, that Mary Ward faces the greatest challenge of her life so far: avoiding homelessness.
In 1995, Ms. Ward became the victim of a predatory lending scam after she borrowed $82,000 against her Bed-Stuy town home. She needed money fast, to continue paying her lawyers who were fighting on Ms. Ward's behalf for custody of her great granddaughter.
The lending company, Delta Funding, offered her the loan within 24 hours, including $10,000 in cash says Ms. Ward, and promised her the money within three days. The title company that secured the loan, closed on the deal without her signature and was supposed to sign over to her the check. But after three weeks of no check and non-returned phone calls by neither Delta or the owners of the title company, Ms. Ward began to get suspicious.
She started staking out their offices, and was just about to take legal action, she said, when the title company finally called.
“They said, ‘Well, Ms. Ward. We got your money; you’re gonna get you your baby. Just sign these papers,’” she said. “I was just so happy that I was gonna get the $10,000. When I got through signing those papers, he said, 'Here’s your check.' I looked at the check, and I almost passed out.”
The check they cut her was for $1,467.51.
They kept the remaining $8,500 as their fee, she said. The next day, Ward marched down to the Kings County District Attorney’s office at 210 Joralemon Street in Downtown Brooklyn, who then referred her to Housing Preservation and Development (HPD).
According to Ms. Ward, HPD immediately sent out letters to all involved parties and had the loan rescinded within 24 hours.
“I was so relieved, because I didn’t want all that trouble,” said Ms. Ward. “I just wanted my great grandbaby back. She was adopted illegally, you know, and I wanted her back.”
However, wheels were already in motion by Delta and Greenpoint Savings Bank—her mortgage provider—for the loan against Ms. Ward’s home. It was too late, she learned weeks later.
So she took another $10,000 and her case to a pro-bono civil rights attorney firm. The lawyer representing her offered to escrow her money until the case was settled. Instead, the lawyer spent her check—for which she was reportedly convicted and later did jail time.
In the meantime, with still no great grandbaby, a jailed lawyer and thousands more in unpaid interest on a defaulted loan, her house was left languishing dangerously in limbo.
Sixteen years later, Ms. Ward still does not have custody of her great granddaughter—now 18 years old. Greenpoint Bank has since gone under, and Delta? The company was sued by the feds in 1999 for civil rights violations—targeting minorities, especially in Queens and Brooklyn, according to a Daily News report. The company went bankrupt in 2007.
Ms. Ward’s $82,000 mortgage loan has spiraled into an outrageous debt of $200,000, according to Karen Gargamelli, a lawyer from Common Law, a non-profit policy organization that helps build community organizing efforts.
Now, in the last 15 years of her life, what might seem like the most novel-worthy part of Ms. Ward’s story, ironically, is not, as Ms. Ward is the victim of a predatory lending scheme that has similarly affected tens of thousands more poor, elderly minorities around the country.
In Bed-Stuy, the practice has been especially pernicious, as a community with one of the highest rates of housing foreclosures in the nation, according to the Federal Reserve Bank of New York.
Legally, Ms. Ward no longer owns the home where she has lived for the past 44 years. It was sold in 2008 at a foreclosure auction to 768 Dean Inc. And tomorrow, August 19, the new owners will send city marshals out to evict the 82-year-old senior.
The lawyer for 768 Dean Inc., Bruce Goldstein, said of the purchase and possible eviction only, "I don't want to comment on the matter while it's still going on."
In the meantime, Ms. Ward refuses to leave. An iron fence and chicken wire—an imagined security blanket of sorts—surround the outside of the house at 320 Tompkins Avenue. She says that, after all this time, she still cannot understand what she did wrong, and they will have to “carry me out on a stretcher before I leave my home.”
Also tomorrow at 9:00am, Gargamelli said, Common Law is planning what she calls an "eviction blockade," in front of 320 Tompkins Avenue, where supporters of Ms. Ward will gather in protest of deceptive banking practices.
Common Law, Inc., in conjunction with Organizing for Occupation (O4O), a housing and human rights organization, are hoping to bring out at least 50 people and gain enough support to keep Ms. Ward in her home, Gargamelli said.
"Women like Ms. Ward are the heart and soul of Bed-Stuy; they are the mothers and grandmothers and great grandmothers that are the fabric of this community,” said Bed-Stuy resident and O4O member Jessica French Smith. “It would be shameful to stand by and allow her to be thrown on the street because she fell prey to banks trying to make a buck."
Father Frank Morales an Episcopal priest known for his years of work in housing activism also has stepped in to show his support: “Simply put, they [did] her wrong, and we, her neighbors and supporters, mean to see to it that this wrong is made right,”
When asked about what will happen to Ms. Ward if she is in fact forced to leave, Gargamelli answered plainly, “I don’t know.”
UPDATE: Read the updated article on the eviction blockade here: Eviction Blockade for Longtime Bed-Stuy Resident Keeps Marshals at Bay