NAACP speaks out about reverse mortgages that target senior citizens

Photo by Chris Sykes
Home Saver Fredricka Bey, left, listens to Ecco Debnam speak on Thursday, Oct. 26, during the home mortgage foreclosure seminar in the Council Chamber inside East Orange City Hall.

IRVINGTON, NJ — The Irvington NAACP has been championing the rights of homeowners to stay in their homes, despite the threat of home mortgage foreclosure and the reality of dropping property values, since the Great Recession began in 2007.

Irvington NAACP Vice President Kathleen Witcher was the local civil rights organization’s president when the home mortgage foreclosure crisis began, and responded to it by organizing seminars and information sessions, designed to connect struggling homeowners with the resources that might be able to help them. A homeowner herself, she knows what many people have been going through while struggling to stay in their homes.

So when Witcher and Irvington NAACP President Merrick Harris heard about former East Orange Mayor Tom Cooke’s fight against the threat of foreclosure of his home by Citibank, they had much to say.

“In response to the unfortunate terms of the housing foreclosure of Mr. Cooke and others like him, I would say anything that sounds too good to be true probably is,” said Witcher on Tuesday, Oct. 24. “Many times, I remember almost coming into arguments with people who, like Cooke, may have fallen for old actors advertising reverse mortgages.”

Although Cooke’s financial circumstances are still being sorted out, everyone attempting to help him keep his home believes Assembly Bill No. A-5138, which calls for a moratorium on all home mortgage foreclosures in the state . This would give struggling homeowners a chance to catch up on past-due mortgage payments, instead of allowing banks and lienholders to foreclose on them; the bill, sponsored by Assemblywoman Sheila Oliver, is pending in the state Legislature.

“Many do not remember that signing over a loan or reverse mortgage after you’re deed is paid is like double jeopardy,” said Witcher. “Yes; you get money to spend while you live. But after death, those whom you signed on to repay that money with interest are strapped with bills.”

Witcher said it’s also a bad deal for many homeowners such as Cooke, who said he’s having financial problems now, because he tried to be a good dad and help his adult children any way he could, when they were in need. Now that he is the one in need, the Home Savers group is trying to assist him.

On Wednesday, Oct. 18, the Home Savers assembled at Cooke’s home on Hawthorne Avenue in East Orange in an effort to help the former mayor stay in his home. Witcher did not participate in that rally, but said she was there in spirit.

According to Witcher, “the lure of the television and radio commercials makes one believe that they could get extra money,” with a reverse mortgage. “So many seniors in our neighborhoods would like to have extra cash, because their pensions are limited. But the warning would be to think about it more seriously and, before getting a reverse mortgage, find out what happened to other people who already have found out that the promises made to them did not come true.”

Harris agreed that what happened to Cooke could happen to anyone, which is why he said he supports Oliver’s proposed legislation.

“I think it’s great that they’re finally coming together. … the politicians should get together on this issue,” said Harris on Wednesday, Oct. 25. “In Irvington, we’ve been working on this and fighting to keep homeowners in their homes for years. We all know that it’s the banks that caused these problems, but nobody went to jail for it and nobody was prosecuted. I’m glad they’re getting together now, but what’s going to happen after two years?”