Like almost two million other New Jerseyans, Ezekiel Iwarimie came here in search of a better life, in his case, from Nigeria.
Like many, he found it, being able to put his education in social work to use as a residential counselor for a New Brunswick behavioral services company.
He even found love with another immigrant from his homeland, Chioma Amadi. Together they started a family and Iwarimie took the expected next step, buying a home. Like many in the Garden State, Iwarimie was hit hard by the Great Recession, losing his job in 2009.
And Iwarimie has joined hundreds of thousands of others in New Jersey: he is facing the loss of his home to foreclosure. At a time when foreclosures have slowed across the country, more than 38,000 new cases have been filed here this year.
Unlike most New Jersey foreclosure defendants, though, Iwarimie has done what he can to fight the action. Even after a foreclosure judgment was entered against him, he has taken the unusual step of trying to have the ruling set aside, claiming fraud in the lending process.
Something else sets Iwarimie apart. New Jersey Communities United, which learned that the banks didn't even wait for the judgment before they started to hound him, has started afor him on .
The case is complex because the current holder of the mortgage on Iwarimie's house, Garside Associates, did not write his mortgage or refinance it, but simply is the latest company to acquire the note. The company contends that Iwarimie caused his own problems by not making payments to previous holders, or even some property taxes, trying to live in the house "for free."
In his response to Iwarimie’s attempt to reverse the foreclosure judgment, Garside’s attorney, Robert Gelfond, wrote, “the reality is that there are countless dedicated lower- and middle-class individuals and families that struggle and succeed in making their mortgage payments.”
Laura Walsh, a nationally known antiforeclosure activist, volunteered to help Iwarimie through New Jersey Communities United, an Essex County grassroots organization. He is simply hoping for the same consideration that lenders got from the taxpayers, she said.
“Ezekiel’s not looking for a free house,” Walsh said. “What he wants is to be able to make reasonable payments, a principal reduction to the actual value of the property, and forgiveness of arrears.”
The case has attracted attention because of Iwarimie's persistence, she said. Even after widespread publicity about false swearing and fraudulent documentation in mortgages cases, only about 10 percent of New Jersey defendants contest the actions.
The state’s housing prices were high before the bubble, and values here remain more than one-fifth below their peak, one of the weakest recoveries in the nation, according to CoreLogic, an Irvine, CA., real-estate analysis firm.
“In Ocean County, down the Shore, we’ve got people with mortgages over $400,000 on houses that are worth $250,000 now,” Walsh said. “Even if you’re making the payments, you’re still in trouble.”
Like many tales that come to fill law briefs, Iwarimie’s started hopefully.
“I came because there were more opportunities here,” Iwarimie said.
His hometown, Okrika, just outside Port Harcourt, estimates 145,000 residents have emigrated, mainly to the United Kingdom and the United States. He arrived in New Jersey in 1996, and soon his life took wing.
Amadi was also a social worker, and their other shared interests included starting a family and finding a home. But in the overheated housing market at the turn of the 21st century, Iwarimie found the competition was too hot.
His family’s annual income of $60,000 did not stretch very far. So he began looking in Newark, and found a two-family in the South Ward near the Children’s Hospital of New Jersey. That second unit could provide $14,400 in rental income.
“It’s not a good neighborhood,” Iwarimie conceded, “but the house was brand new, it was new construction,” which seemed to him a hopeful sign. So he bought it for $295,000.
New Jersey regularly ranks among the most expensive states for housing. A recently released report from the federal Bureau of Economic Analysis ranked New Jersey spending on housing and utilities fifth-highest in the nation, behind three state and the District of Columbia.
But there are normal highs and market-bubble highs.
During the decade 1991-2000, the average price of single-family homes in New Jersey rose by about a third, according to the Federal Housing Finance Agency’s housing price index. In the next five years, it almost doubled, the federal data shows.
In 2006, Iwarimie said, he began receiving letters and then a call from Argent Mortgage Co. of Orange, CA, telling him his home had greatly appreciated in value. As he understood the offer, he could refinance at a lower interest rate and have money to pay other bills.
The timing seemed good, because back in Nigeria, his mother was ill and struggling to pay for treatment. But when Iwarimie went to Argent’s local office in New Brunswick for refinancing, he did not have an attorney to help him decipher the 80 pages of documents he was told to sign or initial.
It was only later that Iwarimie sat down and went through the entire stack of documents that he had received from Argent. He came across two that he had not signed, he said. One was a disclaimer, saying he should have an attorney for the now-completed closing. Too late.
The second certified that his annual income was $124,200, which he said he had never claimed and conflicted with the tax returns he had provided to Argent.
A third document raised his monthly mortgage payment by almost $900. When he received the bill, and also discovered a “right to cancel” form, he began calling Argent seeking to get out of the deal. Unable to get a response, he started making the higher payments, he said.
Even by the time he lost his job, he said, his wife was making more as a nurse and they were able to get by. But the new mortgage had an adjustable interest rate, and the rate kept rising. Meanwhile, the note passed through a number of owners, some sharing Argent’s business address, for nominal sums.
Eventually the name on the bill was Kondaur Capital Corp., and when Iwarimie contacted them, it seemed help was at hand. Kondaur offered him a six-month trial modification at a substantially lower cost, and the family could afford to make the payments.
At the end of the six months, though, Kondaur almost doubled the bill. In January 2012, when the couple could not pay, the company began foreclosure proceedings. When Iwamirie sought to negotiate, a Kondaur representative told him the house was being sold. Sure enough, he soon had a visit from a representative of Garside Associates, which was acquiring the mortgage.
On behalf of Garside, Gelfond said that if Iwarimie had problems with loans from Argent, Kondaur or other parties, he should have raised the issues with them at the time.
According to Iwarimie, a Garside representative offered to drop the foreclosure for $60,000.
“I told him I didn’t have that much, and he kept saying, ‘You’ve got to move, you’ve got to move,” Iwarimie said.
Iwarimie then received a series of certified letters labeled “Notice of Entry of Final Judgment” against him. It was only months later, when another attorney got around to reviewing the letters, that she realized most had been sent well before the judgment was final.
Meanwhile, his new attorney, Michelle Munsat, said that with their finances improved, the Iwarimies qualify for a mortgage modification.
Instead of that, Gelfond suggested Iwarimie could ask the court for a “cram down,” a court-ordered reorganization, and file for bankruptcy.
“I’m expecting there will be a good outcome,” Iwarimie said. “Maybe they will see that it doesn’t make sense to drive out a family who is willing to pay a reasonable amount and instead have another empty house.”