I ran into Michael last week on Chicago’s far south side at a meeting of Chicago Anti-Eviction, a grassroots group working to stem the destruction foreclosures have wrought on Chicago’s largely Black and Hispanic south and west sides. He latches onto you quickly.
Not in an awkward or uncomfortable, or even desperate way. Michael, wearing a well-worn black cap that reads, “Man of Faith.” He is a man of faith. He knows he can’t stand and face the banks and powerful alone. He has faith and persistence that friends and the community will help him in the fight of his life. A tall order for a man who nearly died several years ago from a massive heart attack. But Mike Henderson is fighting for his wife and the elegant red stone home that has been in his family for 34 years.
This week I visited Mr. Henderson’s home on Chicago’s West side. As I snapped several photographs of the house, he asked that I not take any pictures inside. As he led me through the door, the reason was readily apparent. Though it was almost 50 degrees outside, unseasonably warm for late January, it was much colder inside the Henderson House. Standing in the barren and unfinished front room, our breaths rose in the air, the of the past several days cold held and deepened by the old stone house.
It is hard to see where the repairs were done. Henderson, back in 2003 estimated it would cost $250,000 to fully rehab the historic 19th Century building, perhaps one of the most beautiful and ubiquitous on the West side. Henderson alleges that Neighborhood Housing Services of Chicago, a 501c3 non-profit talked him into $350,000 instead. So began a decade long battle for what Henderson believes is a complex scheme to steal his home from him. The Illinois State’s Attorney’s office has also begun an inquiry into Henderson’s case. As evidence, Henderson wields a daunting and meticulously prepared collection of documents.
“I’m not an educated man,” Henderson tells me. “I do everything by the book. He holds up a packet of papers regarding his case. His smile whimsically melancholic. “I make books.”
Fundamental to his case is, who actually owns the loan? The effort to discover that simple fact prompted an FBI inquiry several years back, and prompted Jesse Jackson Jr and Senator Dick Durbin to take an interest. A letter of demand to supply Henderson with documents to support his claim seems to have prompted the foreclosure proceedings, a curious thing since he never received any statement, but was making good faith payments to a second bank. That bank accepted the payments, which would not have covered even the insurance of the property, but never questioned the shortfall. In fact, they sent him a confirmation, which he shows with the bank’s letterhead, that the payments were sufficient to cover both insurance and prpoerty taxes, an fiction by any reasonable accounting. He also challenged letters sent by the bank that the loan was paid in full. Henderson sent three letters in total asking them to recognize the mistake. Each time he received the same reply: The loan was paid in full.
The evidence he presents is carefully documented in his growing stack of collected and organized papers. For example, upon a cursory examination of the documents, NHS of Chicago gave Henderson the loan of $350,726, at least on paper, on May 30, 2003. On June 9, that same year, NHS placed a genuine lien on his property for the same amount. They refused to provide the date, month and year that they disbursed the $350,000 to him, however, because, he contends, that would lead to the conclusion that the lien was fraudulent.
Surrounding the core question of who actually owns the loan, and what happened with all of the money, a perplexing maze emerges that leads the most skeptical minds to a disturbing conclusion. But fighting that battle in unsympathetic, and even obstructionist lower courts is daunting for poor and working class people. Complicating all of this, Henderson’s heart attack in 2009 that left him unable to work any longer. That and his fixed and limited income leaves him at a distinct disadvantage, and unable to afford legal assistance. Instead he relies on the community and something else, and a detailed collection of supporting evidence copied and recopied at a local Kinkos. That cost alone weighs heavily on the couple’s day to day existence, but at least keeps them in their home-for now.
“We don’t have an attorney,” he remarks with a smart cock of the head. “We only got God, and God is a top flight attorney.”
With that he leads me to a small alcove to one side of the long, open and spacious first floor. The drywall is unfinished, and a rush of icy-cold wind comes through the house at the floor. Several sturdy orange and green extension cords snake about the hardwood floors. Two of them connect simple space heaters facing the alcove, which is modestly covered by heavy drapes. Their bed is inside that small room, covered with layers of blankets and electric blankets. The couple spends most of their time in bed together in an effort to remain modestly warm, and to survive the winter temperatures.
By Wednesday arctic weather had once again moved into Chicago, with temperatures well below the freezing mark. At the Chicago Anti-eviction meeting last night, attended by a representative from the State’s Attorney’s office, I asked Michael if he at least has hot water coming to the building. Without missing a beat, he looked up and remarked, “If I boil some.”
More on this story to come…
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