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Continued: Homeless for the holidays

  • Article by: KEVIN DIAZ , Star Tribune
  • Last update: December 22, 2009 - 9:11 PM

Greg Staffa will be home for Christmas -- home being a 2008 Ford Focus with 33,000 miles on it.

One of the last Minnesotans to lose his home in what has been a tough year for foreclosures, Staffa drove away from his Farmington townhouse at daybreak Saturday, joining more than 26,000 others closing the door behind them for the last time.

For Staffa and many others, there will be no bank forbearance or government initiative, despite the Obama administration's goal of offering 3 million to 4 million homeowners lower mortgage rates through loan modifications in the next three years.

Job loss, a bad economy, foreclosure, impending bankruptcy -- all of this year's headlines seem to have converged on Staffa, a formerly homeless man who thought he was doing everything right in 2005 when he worked a $20-an-hour job and bought a modest townhouse on a cul-de-sac.

It cost him $154,000 -- well within his means at the time. "I didn't buy more than I could afford," he said, between coughs.

He coughs when he gets nervous, he said. He's been coughing a lot lately.

Out of options, Staffa dropped the house keys off in a bank deposit box -- about six hours after a midnight deadline for relinquishing the property.

It's easy to lose track of time when you're entering the state of vagabondage.

"At that point I was just emotionally drained," said Staffa, a 34-year-old ex-baggage handler who lost his job last March in the Northwest-Delta merger. "Then I thought, let's get it over with."

Single, with no health insurance, and $350 weekly unemployment checks running out in July, Staffa is on the job market with little more than a high school education and a disability that prevents him from lifting more than 20 pounds.

Now he's on the road and not feeling particularly sorry for himself, because he knows he's got a lot of company. He's seen two other homes on his street go into foreclosure. A third was sold in a short sale.

"This isn't an isolated, feel-sorry-for-Greg kind of thing," he says. "This affects a lot of people."

'Orchard on fire'

What's unusual about Staffa is that instead of hiding in shame, like the last time he was homeless, he has gone public with a website dedicated to the proposition that he -- and others like him -- are not deadbeats.

"It's easy to attack a few bad apples," he writes. "But what good is that when the entire orchard is on fire?"

Not that Staffa hasn't received help from people in high places. Like tens of thousands of others, his unemployment benefits were extended under the federal economic stimulus package. The sheriff's sale on his townhouse was postponed twice while he appealed to his bank for a break.

Apart from wishing that his bank would offer a holiday reprieve, Staffa says he's not looking for a handout.

"I'm a big personal-responsibility guy," said Staffa, who once ran for mayor in Burnsville, winning 29 percent of the vote. "I get that I broke a contract by not paying my mortgage."

He points to a cascade of events that taught him the true meaning of living paycheck to paycheck -- and the fragility of his middle-class existence.

It started one day in September 2006, when he was lifting a bag on a plane and felt something collapse in his left side. "I equate it to watching bread rise and a bubble pops and slowly deflates," he said.

The injury was diagnosed as an abdominal wall strain. It became chronic, leaving him unable to lift much more than a 24-pack of Coke.

In a subsequent workers' compensation case, a doctor for Northwest's insurer, Liberty Mutual, maintained that Staffa was "prone" to abdominal pain due to his weight, ranging between 260 and 280 pounds his entire adult life.

The dispute, which Staffa won, inspired the name of the website chronicling his professional demise: www.becauseimfat.com.

The upshot of the injury was a move to customer service, where Staffa says he lost enough pay and seniority to leave him vulnerable in the Delta merger. Rather than relocate, Staffa took a severance package and left the airline, which he sees as tantamount to a layoff after nearly a decade of solid employment.

"Other than not lifting that bag, which was my job, there's not a lot I could have done to change things," he said.

In a statement this week, Delta spokeswoman Susan Chan Elliott said that in Staffa's case the airline "adhered to the collective bargaining agreement and was compliant with administering changes in pay and seniority." She added that Staffa's workers' comp claim and weight did not "factor in" to any employment decisions.

'Dramatic year'

Even before he lost his job, Staffa saw the end coming and contacted his bank. He proposed a reduction in his payments, something the Obama administration has urged. But with unemployment pay as his sole income, and seeing no mortgage payments in more than a year, loan officers said no.

"Our preference is always to work out a loan," said a spokesperson for the mortgage holder, TruStone Financial. "But they have to qualify with verifiable and sustainable income."

TruStone's decision comes as no surprise to analysts like Julie Gugin, director of the nonprofit Minnesota Home Ownership Center, which has counseled more than 13,000 homeowners like Staffa this year. "Lenders are inconsistent, unpredictable, and overwhelmed with the job that's before them," she said.

Among nearly 2 million foreclosure filings around the nation in the first half of 2009, more than 11,000 were in Minnesota. As high unemployment persists, Gugin expects new filings to surpass last year's record of 26,265, more than four times the level in 2005, the year Staffa bought his house.

"It's a historic, dramatic year for foreclosures," said U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison, who saw the epidemic break out in distressed neighborhoods in the heart of his district in north Minneapolis. "It started out in the subprime area, but now you've got a lot of people who hold prime mortgages who are being foreclosed on."

One of them is Staffa. He plans to spend Christmas in his car. Friends have invited him over, but he's not sure he'll take them up on it.

"Though I'm pretty much of an introvert," he said, "it's hard to feel festive."

Kevin Diaz • 202-408-2753

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