Jean and Byron Barton have been evicted from their home, but the couple say they have not stopped fighting to return. The immediate battleground has shifted from their West Seattle house to the King County Superior Court.
“I maintain a positive attitude,” said Jean. “We are able to keep our sense of humor.”
On July 18, the Bartons were the subject of dramatic news coverage as members from Standing Against Foreclosure and Eviction (SAFE) prevented King County Sheriff deputies from evicting the couple by blocking an ambulance provided for Byron’s transportation (“Mayor tells police not to evict Vietnam vet and wife,” RC, July 23). Byron, a Navy veteran, needed an ambulance for transportation because he is disabled due to a heart attack and stroke in 2012, explained Jean. After deputies left, the Bartons moved back in.
Byron is unable to walk or talk and is given liquids through a tube, said Jean. To communicate, she said he uses an iPad, which translates his written words into speech.
When deputies returned to the Barton’s home on Aug. 15, SAFE members were not present, and the Bartons were locked out of their house. Byron is now in a nursing home. “He says, ‘Everybody is really old. I have no one to talk to,’” Jean said.
While living in an apartment offered by a family friend, Jean is looking for housing. She works 30 hours a week, for $13.40 an hour, at Mary’s Place, a shelter and day center for homeless women and children.
Since 2008, in Washington state, there have been 178,250 foreclosures, according to data from the Washington State Department of Financial Institutions. To those who study foreclosure, the Bartons’ story contains the familiar hallmarks of predatory lending.
A familiar ‘trap’
In 2000, the couple moved into Byron’s family home to take care of his mother. After his mother’s death in August 2007, Byron and Jean took out a $465,500 mortgage on the house to pay bills and purchase the house from his mother’s estate. The lender was Washington Mutual whose financial practices left it bankrupt.
At first, Jean said, the house payments were a manageable $1,500 a month. Over the next three years, as the Great Recession gripped the nation, both Jean and Byron became unemployed. Around the same time their monthly house payments ballooned to $2,400.
Jean didn’t understand why. She started looking through the mortgage’s records and found they had taken out an adjustable-rate, 40-year balloon loan with negative amortization, which allows the mortgage holder to borrow more money upfront by relying on the future value of the house.
“This is a classic form of predatory loan,” said Cornell University Professor Robert Hockett, who studies the foreclosure crisis.
Hockett explained that these types of loans entice the borrower with
payments that start out very low because they include little or no interest payment on the house’s debt. “After the teaser period, the loan resets. The interest rates shoot up quite high. You could get into serious trouble if you are unemployed. [Such loans] were singled out by housing advocates as fueling the foreclosure crisis,” he said.
In addition, Hockett said that negative amortization also is “a trap.”
In 2010, the Bartons were unable to make payments on their mortgage. By that time, JPMorgan, one of the largest banks in America, had acquired Washington Mutual and asserted it owned the Bartons’ loan. The Bartons tried to renegotiate the terms of their loan but were denied, Jean said.
Then Byron suffered his disabling heart attack and stroke. A JPMorgan Chase spokesperson said that, in April 2014, the bank sold the Bartons’ mortgage to Triangle Property Development.
The JPMorgan Chase spokesperson said the company cannot comment on ongoing litigation.
In May 2014, the Bartons filed a $4.8 million civil lawsuit in King County Superior Court against JPMorgan Chase, First American Title and Quality Loan Service Corporation. In the suit, the Bartons claim that Jean’s signature was forged three times on loan documents in 2007.
Even though Hockett has not reviewed the Bartons’ case, he said the foreclosure crisis revealed that forgery “was a big, big problem.”
During the run-up to the Great Recession, financial institutions cut a lot of corners on mortgage documents, he explained. “Some signatures were forged,” he said. When the extent of the forgery problem was uncovered, attorney generals across the country started investigations and levied fines. The scandal led to foreclosure moratoriums across the country, according to Hockett.
Waiting for a miracle
The Bartons also claim in their lawsuit that JPMorgan Chase cannot produce the original mortgage documents.
Hockett said, “If you want to collect on a loan, you have to produce the mortgage. If JPMorgan Chase can’t produce the mortgage, JPMorgan Chase might be out of luck.”
The Bartons’ attorney, Jill J. Smith, said that JPMorgan Chase has not filed the required legal paperwork responding to the lawsuit’s allegations. “They’re supposed to file an answer within a month. They haven’t responded to the lawsuit,” said Smith.
Jean said her husband still hopes they’ll get their house back.
“I’m a little more of a pragmatist but miracles happen,” she said. “Job [a character in the Bible] lost everything — his family, property and money. At least we still have our family.”
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