This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: October 27, 2008 - Late on a Wednesday morning, Andrew Long wakes to a quiet home.
Everyone's gone. Tammy Long, his wife, left for work hours ago, driving his daughter, Nikki, 16, and her son, Tim, 15, to school on the way. Lucky, the three legged dog, and Ellie Mae, the pregnant Doberman, wait for his attention. The cats skulk about.
Andrew Long gets a cup of coffee and lights a cigarette. Before making the 45-minute commute to work the second shift, he picks up the phone, dials and waits, like he has for days, for someone from the mortgage company to answer.
Two years ago, the Longs found this home on a street lined with old trees and SUVs. It cost $118,000, which seemed possible on their $75,000 income. They got a fixed-rate mortgage, moved in, and began applying paint and sweat and love.
Now, a pile of letters from the mortgage company sits inside his laptop's bag.
Finally, a real person answers on the other end of the phone.
We've got $3,500, Andrew Long says. We need to work this out.
The Longs sit at their kitchen table; Ellie Mae and Lucky crawl around underneath. A vinyl tablecloth covers the table with images of fall leaves. On top of the leaves, near small pumpkins and two bottles of blue window cleaner, Andrew Long has set a stack of white envelopes with green stripes along the top. They're addressed to him, his wife, his mother.
They're from the mortgage company.
Across the table, Tammy Long's checkbook is out. She's been tracking her receipts, trying to keep everything balanced.
She didn't even really like this house when they saw it, she says. They'd looked at so many, maybe eight that day, when the real estate agent took them to see the house next door. She mentioned this house was for sale -- and it needed a lot of work.
"But it's got a big garage," the Realtor told Andrew Long.
"And Andrew goes out and sees the garage," Tammy Long says, "and that was it."
At the time, the Longs were living in a trailer in Wright City, which she liked but he didn't.
"It was a trailer," he says.
The living room and kitchen walls of the Warrenton home were painted pink. Wood-colored tile peeled from the kitchen floor. But for $118,000, the price seemed affordable for their $75,000 a year earnings.
The Longs put $5,000 down, which they borrowed from his mom, and the sellers paid $5,000 toward closing costs. Their monthly mortgage would be about $1,000 a month. They weren't worried.
The Longs and Tammy Long's son moved in, and soon Andrew Long got lots of calls at work from his wife. "Yeah," he says. "I would get the 'I hate it here' speech." The sewer pipe collapsed. The basement kept flooding. Still, those things could, and would, be fixed.
The Longs were in their first home together since marrying in 2004, and pretty soon, Tammy Long felt at home. They cleaned and painted the living room a buttery yellow, hung shimmering tan curtains Tammy bought on sale, laid down ceramic tile in the kitchen, and mentally mapped out how each room would soon look.
They worked each day, she as an assistant manager at a bookstore in the Warrenton outlet mall, he on the maintenance staff at Hussmann Corp. in Bridgeton. They welcomed Andrew Long's daughter, Nikki, from Michigan, where she'd been living with her mom. And they watched, together, as their home formed.
But they failed to talk to each other about money.
"Financially," he says, "we were ... walled off from each other."
If a bill arrived and Tammy Long couldn't pay it, she'd give it to her husband.
"I was her ATM," he says.
If she couldn't afford groceries because gas was so high, she'd put it on her credit card.
Andrew Long missed a house payment. Then another. Then another. Then another. His wife didn't know.
He worried about their finances but had no idea how bad things really were. Then, the letters from the mortgage company started coming. Every day. Sometimes 10 a day.
"We have been notified that a default has occurred in payment of the mortgage on this property..."
A TEAR IN THE FABRIC
Even though she didn't like the home they bought, buying it felt right to Tammy Long.
"It was like a thing of stability," she says. "And it felt like that was the next step that we're supposed to take."
A home was an investment that had the potential to grow, Andrew Long says. But, like his wife, it also meant security to him on other levels. "Hopefully," he says.
"It's like a safe haven," she says. "It's security, even though it's not really security."
Homes aren't just places to live, says Chris Krehmeyer, president and CEO of Beyond Housing, an organization offering housing support to low-income families. They're a fulfillment of the American dream and a critical psychological component of who we are as individuals and families.
"You have indeed made it when you're able to have your own home," he says.
In the past 30 years, Krehmeyer has seen efforts to help more people become home owners. But now the Longs, like many families, are in trouble; for them, like many others, though, the problem isn't due to adjustable rate mortgages or some other creative financing scheme. It's a tightening economy.
Krehmeyer estimates that Beyond Housing and four other St. Louis organizations will counsel 4,000 area families on foreclosures this year. Of those, they'll only be able to help between 25 to 30 percent.
"We've never had anywhere near this number of people calling us," he says. And more and more, those people are the middle class, making $40,000 and up, who've fallen behind or refinanced.
None of this sounds new to Tom Shapiro, a professor of law and social policy at Brandeis University. Along with partners, Shapiro created a "Middle Class Security Index," which is described in his report, "By a Thread: The New Experience of America's Middle Class."
The study, published a year ago and based on government data, sought to measure the financial security of the middle class. Shapiro defined the middle class in terms of Americans with incomes ranging from $40,000 to $120,000 for a family of four. Nearly two-thirds of the population fit that description, he says.
Inclusion in the middle class also depended on five core economic factors -- available access to health care, the amount of money left over each month in the family budget, housing costs, educational attainment, including a bachelor's degree or higher, and financial assets. If families had three of those -- college degrees, for instance, a home and access to health care -- they were considered to be secure.
Shapiro says only 31 percent of families are financially secure and meet the standard of having three core economic factors. One in four families is at high risk of slipping out of the middle class, the report says, and more than half of families have no net financial assets.
Shapiro has a recent study, not yet released, but he says the trend is continuing. He attributes this to three major factors.
- Most people don't have pensions, or work-funded retirement programs, so they must save more for their own retirement.
- Even people with health insurance cannot depend on all medical expenses being covered. More than half of people with hospital-based debt have health insurance, he says.
- Finally, families must spend and save more for education, and students still graduate with mounds of debt.
Add to that wages that don't go up as costs do, and people like the Longs can get in trouble quickly.
They fell behind on their electric bill, which they paid on the budget billing plan, or equal monthly payments. At the end of the year, they were told they owed an extra $1,000. They're now paying that off on top of their monthly bill.
One year ago, they sat down to talk about their credit cards and realized between them, they had 13. "A lot of them were mine," Tammy Long says out of the corner of her mouth.
Her husband raises one finger.
"You had two," Tammy Long says.
"I had two," he agrees.
They owed about $12,000 and are working with a debt-solution program to pay them off. Now, they owe less than $7,000.
They have health insurance through Andrew Long's job, but still, he wakes every morning hoping for overtime. Without it, the family's in the red. And his 45-minute drive to work eats up money for gas, too.
"You're working," Krehmeyer says, "You're doing your part, you're doing the bootstrap thing, but you're getting a modest increase on a modest salary."
And it doesn't take much, he says, for families to find themselves upside down.
About a month ago, the Longs sat down on their deck with his mom.
They figured out their budget down to the penny. Until then, they didn't realize all the little places money went -- a stop by the gas station for sodas and snacks, lunches out. They limited themselves to $100 a week for groceries. They're clipping coupons and cooking. The kids don't get allowance anymore, and they're not allowed to have grocery-gobbling friends over as often, either.
"Kids don't get Christmas," Nikki says, standing at the counter making dinner.
"I'm serious about that," her dad tells her. "No Christmas."
Nikki worries about her family's finances. She might get a job, she says.
Tammy Long has sold many things on Craigslist and eBay and is trying to find side work cleaning houses or washing windows.
Then, last week, the Longs borrowed $3,500 from their moms to repay the mortgage company. Andrew Long called for several days and couldn't get through. Finally, on Tuesday, he did.
They owe $4,988.11 to the mortgage company and $1,022 in lawyers' fees.
The Longs were told that the foreclosure, just days away, would be put on hold and that someone from the mortgage company would call them back. Now the Longs feel like they'll be OK.
"As long as we hold onto the house," Andrew Long says, "and start digging our way out of this."
KEEPING IT TOGETHER
The day of foreclosure passed and nothing happened. The Longs still have the $3,500. They -- and their neighborhood -- might both be safe for now.
When a family loses their home to foreclosure, it hurts more than just that family. Suddenly gone are members of the community, neighbors and taxpayers who can't be replaced. Vacant properties can be eyesores in stable communities, but in unstable ones, they can begin a downward trend, Krehmeyer says.
And in any community, take a foreclosed home and draw an eighth of a mile circle. Everyone in that circle loses value on their homes, too.
"The strength of the society really does mirror the strength of its middle class," Shapiro says.
He'd like to see government policies that deal with globalization and get the country out of the financial crisis.
Krehmeyer wants to see a systematic approach to modifying existing home loans that keeps home owners out of foreclosure.
The Longs just want to stay in their home.
"If we were to lose this house, how do we pick up from that?" Andrew Long says. "Where do we go from there?" A house worth $118,000 is not too much house for people making $75,000, he says. "They don't want this house back."
The bathrooms need fixing, the walls need knocking out. There's still so much to do. But this is their home.
"It's where the dogs are," Andrew Long says.
"It's where our kids are," Tammy Long says.
And, Nikki adds, helping, where they hope those kids will grow up.
True. Unless someone just gives them a great big house, Tammy Long says.
"Other than that, I'm staying here."
So far, they haven't heard anything from the mortgage company.
Kristen Hare is a freelance writer in Lake St. Louis.