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For seniors, foreclosure can destroy the golden years

Marie Ginise thought she and her husband, Joseph, had prepared well for retirement. They worked hard to build up their asphalt driveway business, saved a few pennies and eventually moved to Florida from Connecticut to enjoy their golden years.

But when Joseph got sick and died, Marie, 75, realized she could not afford the two-bedroom manufactured home the couple had bought in Deerfield Beach in 2005. Now, instead of enjoying shuffleboard and card games in her senior community, she’s fighting off foreclosure.

“I cry every night when I go to bed,” Ginise says. “You work for something your whole life and then it doesn’t turn out like that at all. I don’t know if I’m here or there.”

Marie Ginese is among the tens of thousands of older Americans who owe more on their homes than they’re worth after the real estate crash — but with less time to make up the financial loss than those who are younger. An AARP report released this summer, Nightmare on Main Street: Older Americans and the Mortgage Market Crisis, revealed that:

• About 3.5 million loans held by people over 50 (or 16 percent of all loans for that group) were underwater as of December 2011.

• The percentage of seriously delinquent mortgage loans increased from 1.1 percent in 2007 to 6 percent in 2011 for people 50 and older, a 456 percent increase.

• The foreclosure rate for people 50 and older also increased, from 0.3 percent in 2007 to 2.9 percent in 2011.

AARP doesn’t include specific figures for Florida, but local senior advocates say they don’t need numbers to know that the real estate crisis has hit the elderly population hard. A RealtyTrac report released earlier this month showed that Florida foreclosure activity in August increased from August 2011 — the seventh year-over-year increase in the last eight months, meaning the state posted the nation’s second highest foreclosure rate.

“It’s like the end of the American Dream for them,” says Gladys Gerson, a supervising attorney for Coast to Coast Legal Aid of South Florida. “They’re very embarrassed that they can’t maintain their own home.”

Max Rothman, president of the Alliance for Aging in Miami, says he is seeing “more older folks calling in about various issues relating to financial insecurities. It’s a symptom of the times.”

Older Americans are struggling to make ends meet on nest eggs earning paltry returns, but the underlying factors of the mortgage crisis began long before The Great Recession. As housing prices soared, older homeowners took home equity loans and second mortgages on their houses, just as their younger counterparts did — but with less time to weather the financial storm if the monthly payment became unaffordable.

“If you’re 65 plus, it’s not like you can take a second job to make the payments,” says Debra Whitman, AARP’s executive vice president for policy. “Your income just doesn’t change much. You have a lot fewer options.”

The AARP report noted that older Americans are carrying more mortgage debt than ever before. This spells trouble because home equity has often been used to help pay for medical bills or supplement fixed incomes later in life.

Gerson, of Coast to Coast Legal Aid, which represents low- and moderate-income Broward County residents, is defending Marie Ginise in foreclosure proceedings. Gerson says there are hundreds of seniors like Ginise who are behind on their mortgage payments — with no hope of catching up. “They get further and further behind.”

The hardest hit: low and middle-income seniors. According to AARP, older middle-class borrowers with incomes ranging from $50,000 to $124,999 accounted for 53 percent of foreclosures in 2011. Borrowers with incomes below $50,000 made up 32 percent of all foreclosures in that age group.

“There are limited things they can do” in the case of a foreclosure, Gerson says. “If they’re lucky, maybe they move in with a relative or rent a room somewhere. But most fear that they’re going to be stuck in some institution at the end of their years.”

Though she’s hopeful that the lender will reconsider the foreclosure, Ginise worries about where she will live if the lender refuses to modify her loan. She had already asked the company for a break when her husband got sick in 2007. At the time, the lender agreed to lower monthly payments but did not reduce the loan. When her husband died in May 2009, the lender demanded she pay what was owed over the two years of reduced payments. She couldn’t afford the sum then, and she can’t afford it now. Meanwhile, the 32-year-old manufactured home the couple bought for $125,000 seven years ago is worth just over $40,000 – if she can even sell it. “I’m making myself sick over this,” she sighs.

Myriam Rodgers can relate. She and her then-husband downsized to a townhouse in West Kendall in 2006. At the time, making the mortgage payments wasn’t a problem. “We thought we were doing the right thing. We didn’t want to have to take care of the yard and the pool,” she said.

It didn’t work out that way. After a divorce and the death of her mother, who helped with the mortgage, Rodgers negotiated a loan modification that allowed her to pay interest only — 2 percent during the first two years and then 4 percent over the next two years. In the fifth year, the negotiated terms required her to start paying principle and interest at 5.75 percent. As the fifth year approaches, she realizes she can’t afford the payment on her Social Security and part-time job earnings.

The value of the home has dropped, too. The townhouse she bought for $300,000 is now worth about $180,000.

“I don’t see a future with this house,” says Rodgers, 66. “But where will I go?”

Marta L. Carreno, 70, managed to rent an apartment in June after the bank started foreclosure proceedings on her Century Village condo in Pembroke Pines. She was lucky to find a place. “I know the manager, so I got a break. If I didn’t know anybody, I would have had a hard time,” she says. “My credit isn’t good.”

Her dream retirement has turned into a nightmare, she adds. The two-bedroom condo she bought in 2005 for $230,000 is worth less than half that now. Even before her husband, Miguel Angel, died in 2010, the couple had asked for a loan modification. Now without his pension or Social Security, there’s no way she can afford to keep it. Instead of fighting the foreclosure, she has decided to let the bank take over her property.

“I live one day at a time,” she says, her voice wavering with emotion. “I never thought I would end up this way. I’ve lost everything.”