Rev. Robert Michael Vanzant, 59, the outreach pastor for D.C.’s Faith Temple, a Christian church with a special outreach to the African-American LGBT community, says he’s doing his “very best” to keep his spirits up at a time of need.
His Northeast Washington home of 24 years is in foreclosure and the Bank of America, which holds the mortgage, is taking steps to have him evicted.
“I’ve spent my entire life serving God and my community,” Vanzant said in an open letter to the bank that he released last week. “When I became disabled and my income dropped, I reached out and asked for a modification so that I could continue to pay my mortgage. You denied my request and set me up for foreclosure and eviction.”
Last week, friends and associates at Faith Temple joined the D.C. anti-foreclosure group Occupy Our Homes in staging a protest demonstration on his behalf outside the Bank of America’s loan office on U Street, N.W., just off 14th Street.
The protest organizers say Bank of America appears to have violated a city law that requires lenders to enter into a mediation process with borrowers who have fallen behind on their mortgage.
An official with the city agency that administers the mediation program said its intent is to determine whether a borrower is qualified for one of nearly a dozen federal programs that encourage and in some cases pay lenders to modify the terms of a mortgage to lower the monthly payments and enable a mortgage holder to keep the home.
Vanzant has served as a pastor at Faith Temple since the church was founded in 1982. He said he moved into his house on the 5500 block of 5th Street, N.E., in 1988 as a tenant before buying the semi-detached townhouse in 2003 from his landlord.
Isaiah Poole, a longtime member of the church and friend of Vanzant’s, said Vanzant has long opened his house for church functions, including Bible study classes. Poole said Vanzant also has opened his home as a shelter for people in need.
Vanzant told the Blade his problems began in 2008 when he became disabled due to illness and was later approved for disability status. He said that although he was no longer able to keep his full-time day job with the Metro transit agency, for the next year and a half he managed to continue making his mortgage payments through a disability insurance policy he had and later through Social Security disability benefits.
“I called the bank in early 2009 and said my income was going to change soon and I needed to talk about streamlining my mortgage,” he said. According to Vanzant, bank officials told him there were no mortgage assistance programs available for people who were current on their payments.
He said he next contacted several mortgage counseling organizations that promoted themselves as experts in helping people at risk for foreclosure. One of the organizations advised him to withhold his mortgage payments and place the money in a savings or escrow account, with the intent of working out a mortgage modification plan with the bank at a later date.
“And so that’s what I did,” he said.
But by early 2010, Bank of America began foreclosure proceedings and refused to discuss any mortgage adjustment options that had been widely publicized in the media and by the Obama administration.
“I received something from the law office that was representing the bank that they were foreclosing,” he said. “At the same time I received a notice from the Landlord-Tenant Court from the bank’s lawyer about an eviction.”
Added Vanzant, “That’s when she [the bank’s lawyer] told me, ‘They don’t want to talk to you. They won’t have anything to do with you. They don’t have anything to say to you.’”
Mike Haack, an organizer for Occupy Our Homes and one of the leaders of the protest demonstration last week, said the group plans further protests if Bank of America doesn’t demonstrate a good faith effort to work out a way for Vanzant to save his home.
“We feel the bank can take steps to allow him to keep his house,” Haack said. “The Reverend is an asset to the community.”
Vanzant, who was being treated at Howard University Hospital at the time of the Sept. 6 protest, said a representative of the bank called him at the hospital that same day, leading him to believe that the protest may have “alerted” the bank to his plight.
“I told them I couldn’t talk to them at that time because I was under medical treatment,” he told the Blade. “I said I would like to talk to them the next week.”
He said the bank’s representative called again last Friday and he arranged to speak with the representative this week.
“I’m trying to arrange for some legal representation before I talk to them,” he said. “I’ve made mistakes in the past and have had what my friends say was some bad advice” by organizations he paid to help during the past two years.
Brian Sullivan, a spokesperson for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, which administers the federal government’s mortgage assistance programs, said HUD strongly urges consumers not to pay anyone for so-called mortgage assistance services. He said HUD has a long list of HUD-approved mortgage counseling organizations and all of them offer their services for free.
He said Vanzant would likely qualify for a mortgage modification program, but a final determination on his qualifications would depend on the specific status of his mortgage, such as whether it is associated with federally linked agencies like Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac or the Federal Housing Administration (FHA).
“He has to provide all of this information to whoever he selects to help him get through this process,” Sullivan said.