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Alice McAdoo's house on Marrowstone Island is still Alice McAdoo's house.
The 84-year-old retired lab technician and musician could have lost the waterfront home she inherited from her mother in 1994 if she hadn't gone to the Port Townsend Food Bank the last Saturday in January, and if an attorney with the Northwest Justice Project hadn't taken the time to visit McAdoo to hear her story.
As it happened, housing advocate Barbara Morey was at the food bank Jan. 31 to interview people for the Point In Time Count, a national count of homeless people that is conducted annually. In rural Jefferson County, the count lasts a week.
When Morey, who interviewed all the seniors who showed up that day, asked if there was anyone who was homeless, McAdoo said, “I will be in two weeks.”
“Well, tell me about it,” Morey remembers asking.
McAdoo told Morey about the house her mother, Mary Shumaker, had willed her and about how she moved in, then signed up for a reverse mortgage in 2001 to make ends meet. Eight years later, McAdoo fell ill. On that day in January 2015, her home was set to go through foreclosure and be sold at public auction on the Jefferson County Courthouse steps at 10 a.m. Feb. 20.
“I contacted my friends who were legal beagles and they all said the best person to help is Ariel Speser,” said Morey. “I also am very familiar with the Northwest Justice Project. They have a great deal of credibility with me.”
Speser is an attorney in the foreclosure prevention unit with Northwest Justice Project, Washington's publicly funded legal aid program based in Port Angeles. Speser lives in Port Townsend and knows Jack Range, whom Morey had also contacted for ideas to help McAdoo.
Initially, a Northwest Justice intake secretary had wanted to get some basic information from McAdoo over the phone to be sure she wanted and needed their help. That's the procedure. But it was difficult because McAdoo is hard of hearing. And McAdoo had been getting phone calls from people she wasn't sure she could trust. With Morey's help, Speser got permission to go to McAdoo's home with Morey on Friday, Feb. 6.
NICK OF TIME
“Once a nonjudicial foreclosure sale occurs, the homeowner has 20 days to vacate the home. So she absolutely would have been homeless,” Speser said of the imminent prospect McAdoo faced. “I think she would have tried to move into her RV, which was less than ideal. I think she's been overwhelmed by everything.”
A matter of days after meeting McAdoo, Speser had stopped the foreclosure.
“I have never had a reverse mortgage situation that was such an easy fix. Usually, someone hasn't paid the insurance or the taxes and that can be a challenge. In this case, all I had to do was verify occupancy,” Speser said.
Speser also wants to give credit to others. She also had notified the state Attorney General's Office consumer affairs division, and put in a call to Sen. Patty Murray. Those two offices had also put the lender on notice that the Northwest Justice Project was investigating.
“This is a vulnerable citizen and I'm working on it. I want everyone on notice," Speser said. "We put the lender on notice and the trustee on notice. That was very helpful.”
“One of the problems is that [McAdoo] had been sick and hadn't been able to communicate with the bank and they thought she was no longer living there,” said Speser.
It was a close call.
“I think the take-away was how close she came and just how easy it was to fix,” said Speser.
“If she could do it again, maybe she wouldn't have entered into a reverse mortgage. For some seniors, it's a good option,” the attorney said.
Today, anyone who wants to sign up for a reverse mortgage is required to get counseling so that they understand the obligations and how it works. That most likely didn't happen when McAdoo signed up for the reverse mortgage a decade ago, Speser said.
And it became clear to Speser that things were confusing to McAdoo.
It's a gray winter Thursday in February, the day before her house was set to be foreclosed upon.
McAdoo isn't sure what would have happened if Morey had not listened and Speser had not acted.
The two are in the living room and invite a reporter to come in and hear the story.
McAdoo explains that the house is a bit cluttered with things she inherited from her mother and things she brought to the house when she moved out of a trailer she was living in Port Hadlock.
After she moved in to the house in 2001, she heard about the reverse mortgage and signed up for it with a company named Financial Freedom, thinking there would be plenty of money to pay off the company once she died.
But in 2009, for some reason unclear to McAdoo, the company stopped paying her the $580 a month she had been getting. And about the same time, she fell ill.
“Something happened in 2009 to disrupt the payments and then Alice had financial troubles,” Speser said.
In all, McAdoo owed the mortgage company an estimated $149,000 on that reverse mortgage. The waterfront property is assessed by Jefferson County at $268,000.
“I knew I couldn't work as hard as I did before. But I owed a lot of money. It's awful the way it piles up. You make payments. Then all of a sudden, they want all the money right now,” McAdoo said of getting behind on bills when she fell ill.
Not long ago, someone approached her about buying the house, but that, too, was confusing.
“In order to sell it, Financial Freedom said I had to pay them,” McAdoo said of a proposed deal that Morey said Speser also had to unravel.
“This is a key moment for me,” Speser said, helping McAdoo remember the problem. “It's confusing for a lot of people. Should I sell? Can I sell?”
“It got confusing,” agrees McAdoo of how someone wanted to buy the home from her before it went into foreclosure and how there are so many medical bills.
But once McAdoo and Speser connected, McAdoo said her world changed.
“She's done wonderful. I wouldn't be here now,” McAdoo said of the 30-something attorney.
“She says this, 'We'll do it little by little, first things first. We'll work through it.' I put my foot in her mud puddle right away.”
“I was all screwed up about my property taxes,” McAdoo said.
“Then we got that straightened out,” Speser said of taking McAdoo to the courthouse to get a senior exemption rate for her property taxes. Getting that tax help also means McAdoo should be able to stay in her home longer, Speser said.
“Lucky for Alice, she has an attorney,” Speser said of other issues that she's investigating. “Part of my job is also piecing things together. That's why it's important for people like Alice to connect with good advocates.”
“The good news is that Alice can live here for the rest of her life if she wants to. It's her house.”
In between talking about the reverse mortgage company and her health and things she needs to do and the elderly gentleman who drives her wherever she needs to go, McAdoo shares that she's had three husbands and divorced them all. She and one husband delivered yachts between Florida and Boston. She's sailed in the Caribbean. She used to love to go dancing. Oh, how she loved to dance.
And play music. She performed for years in a band that played all over the Olympic Peninsula. She played the clarinet and the oboe and she made money at that, too. She also worked as a lab tech for a doctor in Port Hadlock for years.
“I've never been without a job,” the 84-year-old said.
But those medical bills set her back. And sometimes now she forgets things.
“I get off track real easily,” McAdoo said.
She might have tried to move things in the travel trailer parked in the front yard. Then again, she can't drive. So that would have been a problem.
“We're doing a lot of what I call disability and senior planning,” said the attorney.
“My goal is to put Alice back in charge. She's now in a position where she can do what's best for her. Maybe it's keeping the house; maybe not. But it's on her timeline.”
McAdoo is now thinking about how she could fix up half the house, maybe rent out another part of it. She has options.
“Now she's connected not only with me, but other services,” said Speser.
As for how it all happened, Morey and Speser point to each other.
“I think Barbara is an awesome community advocate. Honestly, as a Jefferson County resident, it made me feel good to know there are people like Barbara out there connecting with resources,” said Speser.
Morey has similar appreciation for the attorney.
“It was the whole community pulling together for Alice, but Ariel was the lead.”
“She went after the company like a tiger and she has it in writing that everything is back as it should be. But it would never have happened if we hadn't had that Point In Time Count,” said Morey.
So now there is one less person in Jefferson County at risk for being homeless.