They call her “Queen Mother,” a title that reflects her lifelong commitment to community.
At 97, the Rev. Helen Sinclair is still going to Illinois prisons just as her mother, the Rev. Jessie “Ma” Houston, did for more than 30 years.
But today Sinclair is the one needing advocacy.
After spending a lifetime in the Bronzeville home where she grew up, Sinclair is facing foreclosure.
The property, located in the 400 block of East 41st Street is prime real estate.
Five years ago, the elderly woman got a “reverse mortgage,” to help pay for maintenance on the home.
Since then, she has been going back and forth with the lender, Wells Fargo, over the amount it pays for Cook County taxes and for insurance.
She acknowledges that Wells Fargo has paid the tax and insurance bills, but said she worked out a repayment agreement.
When the bank wasn’t paid what it thought Sinclair owed, the entire amount of the loan became due — an amount Sinclair could not pay.
The court entered a “judgment of foreclosure” on January 9, 2017. Sinclair said she wasn’t in court at the time because she was confused about the court date.
A notice of foreclosure was published in the Hyde Park Herald on April 5, April 12 and April 19.
“You die and they get the house. Nowhere did it say I would owe them, Sinclair told me, referring to her understanding of how reverse mortgage agreements work.
Sinclair’s dilemma has prompted some powerful friends to try and help.
“She’s an outstanding community servant who has helped people for so long,” noted the Rev. Jesse Jackson Sr.
“I’m definitely going to call the bank on her behalf,” he told me.
On Monday afternoon, Tom Goyda, a spokesman for Wells Fargo, said the foreclosure sale would not take place as planned.
“We have postponed the foreclosure sale that was scheduled so that we can look into her current situation to determine if there is some way to resolve this issue short of foreclosure,” he told me.
Goyda pointed out that under U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development guidelines effective April 2016, “reverse mortgage borrowers” are required to continue to pay their real estate taxes and insurance.
“If those property charges aren’t paid, the loan can be due and be payable and can be subject to foreclosure,” he said.
“We can advance payments up to a certain point, but we can’t advance any further. We have to figure out if we can get those charges current through a repayment plan,” he said.
I’m confident that Sinclair’s situation will be resolved, but what about the population of aging boomers just waiting to be picked off by lenders.
A study by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau in 2015 found that although elderly consumers are bombarded by ads about reverse mortgages, most don’t understand that reverse mortgages are loans.
“While reverse mortgage borrowers retain the title and deed, the loans are secured by a lien and borrowers can, in fact, lost their homes,” the CFPB warned.
The agency also found that most consumers participating in the study “could not read the fine print in ads that usually addressed tax and insurance requirements and other details about the loans.”
Sinclair is hoping that other seniors will pay better attention to what reverse mortgages are and not take the word of actor Tom Selleck.
“Now when people tell me they want a reverse mortgage, I tell them they had better investigate that. If [Wells Fargo] puts me out on the street, that is not going to bother me. But if I don’t warn somebody about this, that would really bother me,” she said.