Meet Gwendolyn Onunah Onikoro. She’s been a Northside resident almost her entire life, save for her first few years in the Rondo Neighborhood of St. Paul.
Gwendolyn’s Uncle was Reverend Dr. James W. Battle Senior in St. Paul. His image and name can be found on street signs and on the Gospel Temple Church on Marshall and Grotto. She is a retired social worker who helped many troubled youth in the Northside Neighborhood. She is proud of her work and community.
On May 22nd, 2011 while at church in St. Paul, a deadly tornado struck. The damage to her house was extensive. Her roof was torn off. Many of the windows were blown out. A tree took out her garage. The house was uninhabitable. Gwendolyn, who had lived at 1300 Washburn Avenue North for 27 years, spent her last night in the house on May 21st-the day before the tornado struck.
While many of her neighbors and family have slowly picked up the pieces and managed to fix their homes, Gwendolyn’s nightmare continues.
The yard is overgrown with weeds, the roof still has a tattered blue tarp over the damage and the windows are boarded up.
A year after the tornado, hardly any repairs to Gwendolyn’s home have been made. In fact, a bright orange condemnation sign adorns the front door. Why? Because, contractors hired to repair her home were never paid, despite the three checks Gwendolyn received from her insurance company totaling more than $102,000. TCF Bank, which owns the mortgage, never released any money to her.
Trouble with House Payments
Gwendolyn re-financed her home at the height of the housing boom-2006. Soon after, her payments skyrocketed up to $2,400/ month. After some medical issues, she couldn’t afford the payments. In 2010, she was trying to get TCF to lower her monthly payment.
“I said, ‘ I can pay $1,200 a month.’ They said that was not acceptable. At one point, the banker told me, ‘You can’t afford this house.’ “
She struggled to make payments. One month, she would pay her insurance deductible, the next her house payment. This financial juggling continued until December of 2010 when finally, Gwendolyn claims, the bank offered to lower her mortgage if she could make three payments in a row: December 2010, January 2011 and February 2011. She tried but still struggled.
When the tornado struck, Gwendolyn was two months behind on her mortgage.
Waiting on the Check
It’s unclear how much Gwendolyn owed the bank at the time of the tornado. It’s standard practice for banks to deduct money owed from missing payments from insurance checks. Gwendolyn was told to head downtown to cash the check she received from her insurance company-it was too large to cash. She says she regrets the day she signed it over. The bank took the check and told her the money would be available to her in a few days.
A week passed and the money was never credited to her account. She called and was told by a bank representative that two months mortgage would be deducted from the check. The rest would be released to her. That also never happened.
Gwendolyn contacted the bank. She contacted the Minnesota Attorney General’s office. She worked with Jewish Community Action to help her negotiate with the bank. Meanwhile, she says contractors who worked on her house were waiting to be paid.
She resettled in Saint Paul, but before getting her new place she found out something else: She was in foreclosure. She claims she didn’t receive any notice of that. Something that TCF Bank disputes.
Around the time of Thanksgiving she says, she found out her home would be put up for Sheriff sale on December 1st.
TCF Bank: “Her Story Just Doesn’t Jive with What We Have”
TCF Bank was contacted for this story. Media Relations representative Jason Korstande says that Gwendolyn’s claims, “…just doesn’t jive with what we have.”
There was not a lot TCF would or could disclose, but it did say that Gwendolyn did know she was in foreclosure. The bank also claims it was trying to work with her to modify her loan, but Gwendolyn was not living up to her end of the bargain.
When asked about the outstanding balance owed to Gwendolyn on the check, Korstande would not disclose on the amount she owed on her mortgage, but assured me it was more than two months. Korstande said TCF did not agree on the price tag for repairs made to Gwendolyn’s home. The Attorney General’s letter sent to TCF Bank agreed. The letter from Lori Swanson’s office said that TCF was not going to pay for the repairs, that they did not agree on the contractor she chose and that TCF claimed the price quoted by said contractor was too high.
“We have a huge file on Gwendolyn. She knew she was in foreclosure,” says Korstande, who claimed that Gwendolyn was using this reporter to tell her story, and not the facts.
In December, the Sheriff’s sale went through. It is not clear whether someone bought the house or if the bank now owns it.
1300 Washburn Ave North sits vacant. Scrawled across the boarded up windows is an angry message for anyone to read-TCF LIED.
The house is to be condemned-torn down by the city. The bank will not own the empty lot where Gwendolyn raised her three kids.
Dave Snyder from Jewish Community Action started to take on her case after the bank wouldn’t release the funds from the check. JCA and a delegation of supporters went to TCF Bank on Gwendolyn’s behalf and asked the bank to negotiate with her. They tried to figure out a way for her to stay in her home.
Right before the Sheriff’s sale, TCF agreed to a conference call with JCA and Gwendolyn. But, the day before Gwendolyn had to leave town for a family medical emergency. When asked if she could join them by phone, she told Dave Snyder she just couldn’t join that conference call. Snyder thinks she was ashamed, traumatized and had given up in some way. The conference call went on with JCA and TCF, with TCF making claims that were hard to refute due to Gwendolyn’s absence.
“Could Gwendolyn have taken a few more steps to make sure she kept her house? Yes. Could the bank have taken a few more steps to help her keep her house? Yes,” says Snyder.
As a result of JCA’s involvement in Gwendolyn’s case, they have been able to hold community meetings with TCF Bank representatives. The goal is to make them more accountable to communities. They’ve had several conversations where racial injustice and white privilege were discussed. JCA wants banks to be held accountable and to increase their refinancing to African-American families, which has remained stagnant.
Gwendolyn still attends some Jewish Community Action meetings, but is now settled in a new apartment in St. Paul. Some of her things are still inside her old home on 1300 Washburn Ave North, including an old set of china she wanted to pass on to her daughter.