Lisa Murzin-Pelcz needs a miracle to climb out of a foreclosure hole that's getting deeper every month as she misses each mortgage payment.
She's dangerously close to losing the house in East Hartford where she has lived for the past 12 years with her children.
She brainstorms ideas, hanging on to some, quickly discarding others. One day in June she wonders aloud: Could she run a fundraiser?
"We'll invite 300 people, at $100 apiece," Murzin-Pelcz figures. "That would be $30,000. We could get that guy who does a pig roast. I could play my old Grateful Dead albums."
Later, she talks over the idea with her youngest daughter and the daughter's boyfriend. They quickly decide the fundraiser would cost too much upfront. Another dead end.
Murzin-Pelcz, desperately seeking a way out, now owes nearly $30,000 in back payments, taxes, insurance and penalty fees, having not made a mortgage payment for a year. That's more than she earns in a year, and it doesn't include the amount of the mortgage itself.
She has been in foreclosure since five days before Christmas, and is fighting to get out from under a refinanced subprime mortgage that she could never really afford.
"I don't have any good feelings about it right now," Murzin-Pelcz said this week.
Like the estimated 15,000 Connecticut homeowners whose mortgages are at least three months overdue, and more than 1 million across the nation, Murzin-Pelcz is tenaciously clinging to her dream of homeownership — even though the numbers don't add up.
Three months ago, Murzin-Pelcz had more reason to be optimistic. The state legislature had just created new programs to help borrowers facing foreclosure. She thought she might have a shot at them — even though she didn't qualify for the previous state program.
She had heard so much about how lawmakers wanted to keep people in their homes that the new programs gave her hope. But she had an immediate problem: Her bank, Eastern Savings Bank, had set June 10 for final foreclosure action in court. The new programs wouldn't begin until July 1.
A Reprieve, Thank God
Murzin-Pelcz, an East Hartford native and teacher's aide in the local school system, hunkers down one afternoon in early June in her "office" in the backyard of her Winding Lane cape: her 3-year-old son's brightly colored Little Tikes picnic table.
As young Elijah crawls on a nearby swing, pretending he's Spider-Man, Murzin-Pelcz works through a list of agencies in a pamphlet she got from a senator's office. She called a lot of them weeks ago, not getting anywhere.
Bankruptcy looms in the back of her mind as an option, but even that wouldn't assure that she'd keep the house.
The Connecticut Housing Finance Authority, which oversees the new state programs, is trying to persuade Eastern Savings to hold off on foreclosure because Murzin-Pelcz might qualify for the new programs, which refinance to a lower rate even if the borrower owes more than the home is now worth.
Under any plan, she will have to make payments that stretch her $27,000 annual salary beyond normal limits. Her daughters, now grown and living at home, will have to help out to make it work. She looks into a Section 8 housing lottery in East Hartford, in case she loses the house.
Owning a home hasn't been easy for Murzin-Pelcz. Money was always tight, even with her first, 7.5 percent mortgage. When she needed to tap into the home's equity to help pay for a divorce, she agreed to refinance her mortgage in 2005 at rate of 11.75 percent.
The rate was high because her credit score had suffered in the marriage. She thought she would refinance to a lower rate the next year, but the housing slump ended that idea. The numbers are now downright ugly. Including the back payments and penalties, her mortgage debt totals about $145,000, and her monthly payments are $1,800 including taxes. But the bank says the house is now worth only about S100,000.
She takes responsibility for her plight and says, repeatedly, that she just wants to get a normal interest rate and make her payments.
On June 3 — her 46th birthday — Murzin-Pelcz takes a chance with a $1 Lotto ticket. That night's jackpot is $2.2 million. The numbers on the ticket are 10, 17, 19, 20, 25 and 28 — numbers that include family birthdays and other milestones.
She doesn't win, but there is good news the next day from CHFA: Eastern Savings has agreed to postpone final foreclosure action for 30 days, to July 11.
She thanks God. Her spirits are high. She sets to fixing a hole in a screen in a kitchen window, using green floral wire to secure another patch of screen over the hole. The wire came from her mother's house when she and her sister were emptying it out after her mother died seven years ago.
"We're going to make sure the skeeters don't get in and suck our blood while we sleep," she says to Elijah. "It's bad today because it rained and everything is wet."
She still has a worry, though: If the judge doesn't approve the extension, she'll have to file an emergency petition for bankruptcy that same day.
Filing for bankruptcy stops final foreclosure, at least temporarily. But bankruptcy won't erase mortgage debt, and a judge has to approve a repayment plan. Only then is foreclosure ended.
One day, Murzin-Pelcz spots an ad in the paper for a phone-in psychic. The first question is free.
"Will I lose my house?"
"No. I don't see you losing your house."
Murzin-Pelcz isn't completely reassured. Many nights she isn't sleeping well, dropping off around midnight, waking up at 3 a.m., rising a few hours later.
She has started wondering about those churches that send letters asking for money. At her lowest points, she thinks maybe something good will happen if she sends a donation. But she doesn't have the money.
Despite her thoughts of desperate measures to save the house, Murzin-Pelcz continues to use old-fashioned hard work to keep it up — sometimes, literally, with duct tape. The lawn stays mowed, the hedges trimmed and one day this summer her daughter's boyfriend built a fire pit in the backyard.
Rejection And Scramble
One week after her birthday, Murzin-Pelcz walks through the metal detectors at the courthouse at 95 Washington St. in Hartford. She tells herself over and over not to be nervous. But her stomach is in knots. And she has a struggle to find the right courtroom.
Her case isn't on the printed docket. The judge has already begun the proceedings when Murzin-Pelcz slips into one of three benches in the courtroom. Is she too late?
An air conditioner hums in the corner, and there is no microphone. Murzin-Pelcz can barely hear a word the judge is saying.
After a half-dozen cases are called — some in which no one appears — a lawyer interjects. "I have a brief write-in matter," the lawyer says.
He represents Eastern Savings. The extension is granted, until July 15 — four more days than Lisa expected. The lawyer leaves and Lisa follows him. She thanks him. He says he didn't know she was there.
"Well, good luck," he says, hurrying off.
Outside the courthouse, Murzin-Pelcz is relieved. "Well, no bankruptcy today. I get to keep my house. It's my mom up there today, she's helping me."
By July, Murzin-Pelcz has submitted her application to CHFA and has met with officials there to go over her paperwork. Four days before the extension expires, she is back at the picnic table and on her cellphone. She has left a half-dozen anxious messages at CHFA.
She's also trying to comfort Elijah. That weekend, she had to have her dog, Buster, put down. Unknown to Murzin-Pelcz, Buster was sick with an abdominal tumor the vet couldn't do anything about.
Her anxiety is justified. On July 14 — the day before the extension expires — she is told that she doesn't qualify for the state programs.
Her income just won't support even a reworked mortgage under the program. She breaks down in tears.
With Elijah afoot, she pulls herself together, grabs her son and drives to bankruptcy court to make an emergency application. Murzin-Pelcz doesn't have a lawyer and is trying to get one to work without charging a fee, as community service. But she keeps getting told that she makes too much money.
She won't know until at least Sept. 16 whether a bankruptcy court judge will approve a plan that will allow her to keep her house — or reject her bankruptcy, leaving her open for immediate foreclosure. Federal programs signed into law this summer won't start until Oct. 1.
The prospect is dim: Murzin-Pelcz figures her post-bankruptcy payment would be $2,200 a month. She can't get a second job because there would be no one to watch Elijah at night and it would cost too much for a sitter. Worse, she wouldn't see her son during the week.
While she was researching bankruptcy at the local library, she saw a newspaper with a story about how the new state programs were giving homeowners new hope.
"I had a laugh on that one," she says.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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