NLSLA Client Used Her Own Story to Help Others
Courage, said Ernest Hemingway, is grace under pressure.
There were more than 200 people gathered at St. Elisabeth church in the San Fernando Valley on a winter evening in 2009, and they were all under immense pressure. It was more than a year into the economic downturn, and the housing market had collapsed. Almost everyone in the room was in imminent danger of losing their home.
Marta Sanchez didn’t stand out in the sea of people seated in the church’s community room that night—her slight frame almost disappeared into the crowd. Later, when she spoke with the Neighborhood Legal Services attorneys who were there to help stop the tide of foreclosures in the area, she seemed nervous. No one that night could have predicted she would become a courageous advocate.
“She was shy and quiet,” said NLSLA’s Deputy Director Yvonne Mariajimenez, who helped organize the event with OneLA. “She was embarrassed of being in foreclosure, and terrified of what might happen to her family if they lost their home.”
The Sanchez family bought their modest home in Pacoima at the height of the housing bubble for $465,000. After the market collapsed, the house was worth half of that. Marta’s family was severely underwater, and, to make matters worst, their adjustable mortgage ballooned to $5,000 a month. Her family tried to renegotiate the loan with the bank, but the bank refused.
Pacoima—along with several other neighborhoods in the Northeast San Fernando Valley—was targeted by lenders peddling sub-prime loans. Marta was shocked at the number of people who seemed to be in the same predicament. She had come to the church to save her own home, but she left determined to save her community.
Within a few weeks, Marta—who had never spoken publicly before—was sharing her story in public forums, and, within a couple of months, with news reporters.
“It was important for people to know the correct information and not to be afraid,” she said. “I was hoping if they saw I was less afraid they would be less afraid too.”
Eventually, NLSLA attorneys were able to help Marta and her family modify their loan through the federal Home Affordable Modification Program (HAMP). But so many families were still in trouble, and even those with modified loans weren’t safe, as the banks systematically disregarded loan modification agreements and attempted to foreclose on the homes of compliant borrowers.
So Marta didn’t stop advocating. She was interviewed on CNN, Univision, and CBS to name a few. She accompanied NLSLA attorneys to community events to raise awareness of the foreclosure crisis and let people know there was help.
“She had Telemundo on speed dial,” said Marta’s daughter, Annalise. “She took it as her part-time job. Always going to meetings and interviews. She would say ‘I can’t today, I have an interview.’ And we would laugh and say ‘Which channel?’”
During this time, Marta was diagnosed with breast cancer.
“Even throughout her treatment, which included chemotherapy, she didn’t stop,” Yvonne said. “She showed up. Whether it was a protest or a speaking engagement, she always showed up.”
Her interviews with the press helped put the pernicious practices of the banks on the national stage. Banks began to react to the publicity; Bank of America, Chase and Wells Fargo all agreed to provide mortgage loan counselors, who met one-on-one with homeowners facing foreclosure at the NLSLA offices in Pacoima. Hundreds of homeowners obtained face to face meetings with bank representatives trained in mortgage loan modification and obtained assistance to prevent the loss of their homes. Marta helped bring the banks to the very community they had targeted with their sub-prime mortgage lending.
Marta also shared her story, and that of many other families who were facing foreclosure, with elected officials. Her advocacy significantly contributed to bringing about the Homeowner Bill of Rights, which became law in January of 2013 and provided additional protections for homeowners.
That Marta became such a strong advocate may have surprised the lawyers who met her that first night at Mary Immaculate. But it never came as much of a surprise to her daughter.
“She’s not afraid of fighting for what she thinks is right and fair,” Annalise said. “She’s always been that way, ever since I can remember.”
Today, Marta is in the later stages of A.L.S., a disease that causes loss of muscle control and which, in the years since her diagnosis, has left Marta paralyzed. She is able to move only her eyes and her lips, but cannot use her vocal cords. She relies on family and friends to read her lips when she wants to talk.
“People should work together for justice,” she said, with her daughter’s help. “People should stay united.”
“Marta turned her personal struggle into a struggle for her community,” Yvonne said. “Even when it seemed she might lose her own home, she acted with incredible compassion and with such tremendous grace.”