My family’s former home
Just call me “Undeserving”. My family is among many who found themselves victims of a devious mortgage scheme. Our story is a little different in that my brother and sister-in-law were the ones who took full advantage of us. The result has been devastation, homelessness, rush to judgment, a rift within our family, and financial ruin. It is bad enough when a stranger takes advantage of, steals from, deceives, and does other horrible things to innocent victims. But when it is a member of your own family, it can be particularly devastating.
In April of 2010, my husband and I were presented with a proposal from my brother Ronnie and sister-in-law Melissa. My little family was living in a cramped two bedroom condo and had long outgrown it by the time our second child was born. My brother and his wife were going to relocate from Loudon County, Virginia to El Paso, Texas with the Department of Defense (DOD). Ronnie asked us if we could afford $2,000 a month for rent until we could purchase their 5 bedroom, two car garage home. My husband and I discussed how we could sacrifice, and decided to jump on the opportunity to move. I was a stay at home mother with significant health challenges on disability, yet I was willing to try and work a part time job, to make moving into our own home easier. My husband and I went to a mortgage company, applied for, and qualified for a loan that was little more than what the home was then valued. We received a preapproval letter, took it to my brother and presented it to him so we would not have to wait to move into the home. We qualified for our dream home and could not have been happier. My children, a son and a daughter needed their own rooms, and they would have more space than they would know what to do with in their very own home! My husband and I were totally unaware that Ronnie was working with someone whom he thought was a “lawyer.”
A man named Chandler Braun promised Ronnie and Melissa that he could get them a loan modification at a percentage rate of two point something or another. According to Ronnie, this Chandler Braun fellow told him that he should “absolutely NOT” sell to us because our realtor only wanted a commission. He advised Ronnie that he should wait until their loan process was complete before selling the house. When Ronnie approached us with the proposal of renting the house instead of buying it, we should have taken our preapproval letter elsewhere right then and there. Had we done so, we might be sitting in our own home today. But I had no reason to think Ronnie or Melissa had an agenda. In June, we decided to go ahead and rent the home for what we thought would be six months and then purchase. So we moved in and paid Ronnie $2,000.00 for the various pieces of broken furniture and appliances he and Melissa had left behind. They cleaned the carpet, but other than that, the place was filthy and the house was in need of repair. The rent of $2,000.00 a month was going to be a struggle, but we were prepared to deal with that because we were going to be in our dream home; or so we thought.
We needed a lease to show proof of residency so our children could register for their new schools. Braun sent one of his partners to the house with a lease that appeared to have been down-loaded from the Internet. My then 10 year old daughter could have done a better job. It was riddled with errors. I felt then that Ronnie was putting his trust in a shady character. I definitely knew that Braun was no lawyer and told Ronnie as much. It didn’t seem to matter since he believed that they were getting a new loan from this shyster. I didn’t question my brother any longer but could not shake the uneasiness I felt after looking at that lease. It served its purpose, and the children were enrolled into school; but even the school’s secretary noticed the error-riddled document. Looking at Braun’s business card, my doubts were confirmed that the word “lawyer” belonged nowhere in the same sentence as this man’s name. My friend Elaina, who was a realtor called Braun. He refused to speak with her. This too was a big red flag. In hindsight, there were clear signs from the outset that something was not right.
Ronnie and Melissa moved to El Paso, Texas as planned and we moved into our new home. Almost immediately people started showing up at the house looking to serve them notices. One person said that Ronnie and Melissa had not paid their mortgage in months. I called Ronnie about the visits, and he told me that Braun was handling everything. Someone came nearly every week. Mail came from two banks which I was to forward on to Braun; to whom my brother was still referring to as his lawyer. Despite these notices, we had settled in quite nicely into the house. The children were so happy in their new rooms, with their new schools and happy with their new friends. My husband was in his element in the garden out front, planting shrubs and all kinds of flowers; he learned he had quite the green thumb.
Fast forward to Thanksgiving; we would celebrate our first, and only formal, dinner in our own home. We had a guest come up from Caroline County to stay with us. I had furnished every room in the home except the dining area, but we made it work just fine. Our guest room was very comfortable for our family friend, complete with a large television and cable to boot. The Monday after Thanksgiving, a sheriff’s deputy showed up to serve a summons to Ronnie and Melissa. They were not there so they could not be served. I got worried and called Ronnie right away. He said as always, Braun would handle it. I asked him about the mortgage and Ronnie assured me that it was being paid. That was such a relief to me, because we were struggling to pay the rent. Add in the high utilities for heating and cooling we were barely making it. But again, we were in our own home, and we felt the sacrifice to be there was worth it. The deputy returned while I was out and left the summons taped to the door. I called Ronnie right away and he again tried to assure me that all was well. All was not well, as we would find out a week later.
I came home from depositing the rent for December into Ronnie’s bank account to find a notice on the door. The notice stated, “The property at this address had been foreclosed on and sold at auction and the occupants were to vacate immediately.”
My heart sank to my feet. I was devastated and called Ronnie right away. Ronnie called Braun who was still running his con game and tried to blame me for not getting paperwork to him. I was not having it. I informed Ronnie as things were happening. Then I thought, “Wait a minute, what was happening to the money we were struggling to send Ronnie every month?” I questioned my brother about that and he tried to assure me that the mortgage was in fact being paid. I did not buy it, but I wanted to give him the benefit of the doubt. So I checked to see if there had been a misunderstanding with the two different banks that my brother used. How naïve! I assumed that Braun had advised Ronnie and Melissa to stop paying their mortgage as so many people were doing with the burst of the housing bubble. Not only was this bad advice, it is also unethical unless you are filing for bankruptcy. My brother and his wife thought they would get easy money from us, and they did. We never expected to live anywhere for free, because we would have had to pay rent or a mortgage no matter where we were. But we were fine in our cramped, two bedroom condo. We could afford the rent there and were truly looking forward to someday moving into an affordable home. When all of this happened, we had the good credit we needed to qualify for and purchase this home.
Ronnie and Melissa saw suckers, and dangled a hook in front of us. We took the bait, and they took our money. It is as simple as that. When they proposed that we move in with a lease option to purchase the home, they did not disclose that they were not making the mortgage payments. They knew the house would go into foreclosure and constitutes fraud in my opinion. Legally they did not break the law but again, Ronnie and Melissa did know they were not making their mortgage payments. They involved my innocent and unsuspecting family into their schemes! I am also certain they did not claim the money they received from us as income to the IRS. Whether or not they broke any civil or criminal laws, they broke a moral law in my mind. For this, and all their actions, they will have to give an accounting to God.
I contacted the new owner of the home who assured me that the title company had done its homework, and he had in fact, purchased the home at an auction that had been publicly announced. He gave me several phone numbers to call to verify the information which I did. I called Ronnie one last time to ask for our money back. We had to leave our dream home and were now technically homeless. I called my sisters who were just as heartbroken as I was. The person I did not call was my husband. This fiasco happened on a Wednesday and he was due to speak at church later that evening. Had I told my husband, he would not have been able to give his lesson, so I waited until church was over and broke the bad news to him. My poor husband was in a state of shock. I hurt so badly for him. He had a blank look on his face as if he had been stabbed in the heart. He had indeed been stabbed in the heart and in the back by members of my own family. We had to make some pretty quick decisions as the new owner of the home decided to come and meet with us to discuss options.
I asked my sister who lived nearby to come over so she and her husband could be witnesses when the new owner came over. When he learned what had happened, he saw that we were true victims in the worst way; and the culprits were members of my own family. We actually found it odd that the new owner said he saw this all the time, with strangers and families alike. Again, how naïve we were! The new owner saw how nicely I had decorated our home and felt sorry for us. He suggested that we file a lawsuit against my brother and sister-in-law in court. What saved us from having to vacate right away was that fact that we did have a “lease”, if that is what you want to call it. After doing some research, we found that many renters were being forced to vacate their homes because they had fallen victim to unscrupulous landlords — even though they had paid their rent on time every month. Under the Helping Families Save Their Homes Act of 2009, the new owner had to honor our lease until June of 2011 with a caveat. He had the option to raise the rent and make it even more difficult for us to pay to live there. Had he chosen to live in the home, we would have had 90 days to vacate. The new owner made it clear that he wanted to sell the property right away. He did not raise the rent; in fact he actually lowered the rent by $500.00 because he was a man of compassion, and knew we had been victimized in this situation. We still had to pay him for those remaining months. We could no longer afford the same house we had more than qualified to buy just six months earlier.
Our credit spiraled downward from there as it had taken two hits from our car payment being late. Payments made late due to paying rent to Ronnie. We had to swing into action. We had no idea what we were going to do. My husband was already dealing with so much stress on his job, that this pushed him over the edge. Normally he could have dealt with anything on his job as he had done for 12 years, but he could not get over the loss of our home and felt like he was not being a good provider. We were both extremely upset at ourselves for not running the other way when presented with this proposal by Ronnie and Melissa. How were we going to move our things? Where were we going to go? I was so embarrassed I just wanted to disappear.
By January 2011, with my husband under so much strain and fearing a heart attack because of his previous heart trouble I suggested he quit his job. We were going to be starting over anyway, so why not start fresh somewhere else? I had wanted to return to Alaska where I attended the university in the 1990s, I suggested we relocate there. My husband had never considered relocating there before, but after this fiasco he consented. We felt we had nothing left to lose. There were always positions there for which my husband was more than qualified. He applied for an open position and got it. Now we were faced with how to get to Alaska. We decided to have an estate sale because we needed to move quickly. We made a “whopping” $3,000 on everything that we had worked hard to acquire over the previous 14 years. $1,600 of that went to the woman who organized the sale for her fees. It was sad to see our nice things practically given away, or stolen. Some of our things just could not be accounted for with so many people in and out of the house the day of the sale. Reality set in that we were really leaving that house. If Ronnie and Melissa had just done a simple Internet search on Chandler Braun, who by now had stopped returning Ronnie’s calls, they would have found all kinds of accusations and complaints against him. They may have even found that the Maryland Attorney General was investigating Braun’s company. I don’t care that Ronnie and Melissa were scammed by this shady character. I care only that my family was pulled into their financial shenanigans and seemed to have paid a much higher price than they did. They have in fact gone on to buy their own luxurious dream home in Texas. My family did not deserve this! “Undeserving” became our new name. My family has been severely hurt.
Did Ronnie and Melissa even stop to think about our children? As much as we tried to hide it, the kids knew something was terribly wrong. Whether or not it was my bouts of crying and coded talk, or packing up our things, they knew something was amiss. Our daughter did not want to leave her new school; she had dedicated teachers there, and she loved it. She did not want to leave the new friends she had made. Even our autistic son said he did not want to go to Alaska on his last day of school. The time finally came for us to head out. We said our goodbyes to neighbors, friends and church family. We packed up what would fit in our car, shipped some ahead to the post office via general delivery, boxed the rest and put it in storage where it remains. We headed out for a trek that would take us across the United States and Canadian countryside.
The roads were not as bad as I had imagined, but they were treacherous enough once we started driving on the Alaska Canada Highway. It was a different hotel every night until we finally made it to North Pole, Alaska. We did not plan properly at all because we were in panic mode, and made a rush decision because we needed to be out of that house.
Going to Alaska did not work out, at all. We stayed in the Hotel North Pole for twelve weeks while looking for a home to rent. My husband was able to start his job and the children were enrolled in their schools. That hotel stay cost us a fortune. It did help a little that the staff became like family to us; and we met some other nice families while there. I finally found a place and we settled in but ran out of money. My husband’s salary was considerably less than what he made in Virginia, and half of what he did earn, went towards medical benefits. This left us short for rent every month. During my husband’s brief stay with this particular employer, two of his subordinates did nothing but mistreat and tried to set him up for failure. He began to resent the job, and never forgot to thank Ronnie and Melissa for putting us in this terrible situation. It is true no one told us to hike up to Alaska, but fact of the matter is, had we not moved into that house in the first place, my family would still be in Alexandria, VA. We would not have been displaced in the middle of winter.
Speaking of winter, the greater Fairbanks area was coming off a season of the harshest weather the city had seen in years. It was still cold when we got there, but within a month, the ice was gone and we had daylight all day and night. The summer weather was good for us, but financially things were getting worse. I had to reach out to my family and friends for assistance. My other siblings stepped up to the plate to help us out but we had to make another change.
My husband had applied for several federal jobs across the country and started getting interviews. By January 2012, he had interviewed with several federal agencies as a clinical licensed social worker and was receiving offers from around the country. When the offer came from Los Angeles, we decided to accept the job and move to California. But the new job did not pay for relocation and so we were in yet another predicament. We had to leave some of the few things we had acquired behind. We packed all we could in the car and headed south to Haines, Alaska. We put our vehicle on a ferry and sailed down to the Canadian border at Washington State. The children were happy to leave Alaska, as my daughter simply could not adjust. There was some bullying at her middle school where she only made a few new friends. My daughter still missed Virginia terribly and all I could do was hold her when she would cry, “I want to go home, I want to go home!” I tried to explain that there was no home to go back to. Her anxiety was only relieved when I told her that we were leaving Alaska. The children did not like having to ride the bus to school in temperatures that got to 51 degrees below zero anyway. In Alaska, the bus came every day so unless they were sick, they went to school. There are two things we really miss about our sojourn in Alaska; the beautiful landscape and the awesome members of the church to whom we had to say goodbye. They were absolutely wonderful!
When we got to Los Angeles, the people at the new church welcomed us with open arms. A couple of the sisters reached out before and after we arrived to help make our transition smoother. We had to stay in a hotel for nearly a month while we tried to find housing in a nice area of West Los Angeles. We were in a rush to get settled because the children had been out of school for three weeks. We finally found a place to rent, and got them enrolled into school. The move to Los Angeles was as difficult as the move was to Alaska because we had so little money. I had to once again call on family members who were already stretched thin, for assistance. They came through for us. Even Ronnie and Melissa sent $500 to help us get into the apartment, but only after some intervention from my parents. We are still struggling in our day to day existence, but if Ronnie and Melissa were to return more of the money we gave to them, we would be in a much better position. No chance of that happening though, so I won’t hold my breath waiting. I am thankful for the help, but I have to balance that against everything that has happened to us. Ronnie doesn’t think that he nor his wife did anything wrong and will not acknowledge their part in displacing my family or for our financial ruin.
It will take years to rebuild our credit. Ronnie believes that we should be happy with what little money he sent back. I say it was about $4,200 total and he says $5,000. Neither amount is adequate seeing that we spent well over $15,000 to get into and maintaining that house. I guess I could be happy if we did not have to sleep on air mattresses, or if I had a decent set of pots and pans. I would be happy if I my children had been able to get new school clothes. I suppose I would be happy if I had enough money to buy gas and groceries at the same time. I would be happy if I did not have to pick and choose which prescriptions I would fill because I didn’t have enough money. We are getting to get back on our feet; but it was to be a long, slow process, and recovery would not happen overnight. We have a string of unpaid bills that we plan to pay; when we can. Some people understand our situation. Some simply did not care and I understand that, because after all, business is business. But now, we are living on Faith that God will protect, guard and guide us.
We have learned some valuable lessons and will continue to count on our faith and prayer to get us through. Because of our forgiving nature, we have forgiven my brother and sister-n-law. I have to admit it was hard. I was bitter for a while, given to fits of crying because we didn’t have enough money to make it to the next pay day. I still have to look at my children and explain why they cannot go to even some of the cheapest of places at times. I explained to my daughter that first year that see would not be getting new school clothes.
There have been no music, art or karate lessons. We still have to budget everything and live paycheck to paycheck like so many other Americans. But I am determined to help my family recover and move forward.
Having experienced all that we have with him, I would still feed my brother if he were hungry. I would even offer shelter. I would help in whatever capacity I could with no strings. I could do that because I am a Christian and that be the Christian thing to do. I have learned to look for the positive things in all situations now. Good can come from almost any tragedy. The fact that we are now in Los Angeles, California is actually a blessing because of the opportunities here.
I don’t know how else we would have ever had the chance to move here from northern Virginia. My daughter and husband had done some acting in Virginia and they both have expressed continued interest in entertainment. My husband belonged to the Actor’s Center in northern Virginia and my daughter had gone on many auditions with Linda Townsend Management in Clinton, Maryland, and booked some jobs. There are no guarantees but Los Angeles is the place to be for exposure to opportunities in show business. Who knows what will come of it?
The best blessing so far is that California is considered an “Entitlement State”. For my autistic son, this means, he did not have to languish for years on a waiting list as he did in Virginia for a Medicaid Waiver, which allows supplemental resources to assist those with autism and other disabilities and their families. In 2005, he entered the list at number 2056. He was finally awarded the waiver in November of 2013 long after arriving here. Of course we had to forfeit the waiver because we were no longer there in Virginia. Now someone else on the list can be awarded this benefit. Thanks to California law, there are no waiting lists and my son was immediately eligible for services after an initial intake process. Although this entire transition has been painful for us, we are thankful to God that my son can benefit from these resources.
There will be recovery for our situation and we intend to see it through. We have moved on, yet we are still feeling the ripple effects of this family tragedy. Some members of our family do not want us to share our story and keep this all quiet. My questions to them are, “Why should we not talk about what happened to us since we were scammed?” I don’t see why Ronnie and Melissa should they be protected. Whether or not the nay-sayers want to admit it, my brother and his wife are directly responsible for my family losing our home. I believe life is too short to remain bitter and not forgive, as we are commanded to do. Yes we have moved on, but we are often reminded of what happened because so much is a result of this tragedy. There is so much to accomplish in life, and we know God’s purpose for us. Our faith has helped us through all of this. Our family remains split and we have not heard from Ronnie or Melissa in over a year and that is fine. When they want to reach out, we will accept their olive branch. For our family’s part, the healing has begun!