From courthouse steps, woman sees dream dissolve

01/28/2010 10:42 PM

01/29/2010 2:01 AM

ATWATER -- Ethelda Lopez, her husband, teenage daughter and two dogs still live in their four-bedroom, three-bath brown ranch home in Atwater's countryside -- but much has changed.

For one, it's freezing; they simply can't afford to run the heat full blast. And the cupboards hold little food. Their meals now consist of potatoes, rice and pasta when fruit, vegetables and organics used to round out their diet.

Often, a single apple rests on the breakfast bar. Christina, 17, has saved it from her school lunch and left it for Ethelda.

Two weeks ago, the 51-year-old retiree stood on the soggy courthouse lawn, watching as her home was put up for auction. Without a single bid, the Josie Street home went back to the bank.

"This was going to be our retirement home," she said later, sitting on an oversized couch in the home's large living room. "We don't have any grandchildren yet, but I saw a future for them here."

Now, she can't find a future anywhere for her family.

"I'm not lying when I say we really don't have a place to go to. We don't. We look, but how do we get that money?" she asked.

It all unraveled so fast.

With no notice, her family's future was fractured in October 2008.

It's the last time the Lopez family received Ethelda's $6,712.50 monthly check from retirement and investments, money earned from working for AT&T for 30 years.

That October also marks one of the last months they comfortably made their mortgage payment on what was supposed to be the family's last home: a 3,186-square-foot, one-story ranch with handsome stone trim built in a subdivision called The Heirloom Collection at Silva Meadows.

The Lopezes were blindsided when the Sacramento accounting firm they'd hired to manage Ethelda's retirement and investment accounts seemed to disappear, taking all their money with it. When the company's phone lines went dead, all the hopes that had been stored in the home's long corridors and manicured lawns started to die as well.

Things began to fall apart for every member of the family as a result of the income loss. They drained the 401(k) her husband had saved for years working two full-time jobs as a pharmacy technician in Santa Clara County. They lived on the cash, and continued paying their $4,653 mortgage payment for a while longer.

Ethelda spent months working at a feverish pace to refinance their home loan -- something they'd already planned to do six months after they moved into the house in July 2007.

But they couldn't because they were already upside-down -- the house was worth less than the mortgage amount they owed.

In a hardship letter to her lender in August, Ethelda pleaded for help: the family was stressed and emotions were strained, they couldn't afford basic dental care anymore, didn't have the money to help send their eldest daughter to college.

And so the letters went. They were mailed to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, President Barack Obama, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, her lender -- anyone Ethelda thought could help.

Often, she would wake in the middle of the night and pound out thoughts on the computer keyboard. Sad soliloquies filled the space on the glowing monitor.

The family did all it could to make up the difference between their income and their expenses. They got authorities involved in the embezzlement issue, pulled their daughter out of a private high school in Modesto and her husband stopped attending UC Merced. They pared down their monthly expenses. Everyone started looking for a job.

Her husband, a former pharmacy technician, was the only one to find work -- driving buses with a tourism company. Now he's often away from home for long stretches on chartered trips. That leaves Ethelda plenty of time alone at home with her thoughts and fears.

"I went through what I felt like was depression, anxiety," Ethelda explained. "It takes a toll on you. It takes a toll on your whole life."

After searching endlessly for jobs, Ethelda enrolled in Merced College, hoping to earn a nursing degree and get back into the job market.

Last week, she woke early to stand in the cold and rain for her student financial aid check. Between the mounting bills and her college daughter's textbook needs, the money was nearly spent before the envelope was opened.

Recently, Ethelda sent a long e-mail to her husband, the only way they can communicate when he's on the road. That day she'd called HUD, a lawyer in Los Angeles and a housing advocacy program in Massachusetts.

She had wasted her time.

"To say the least, I was very depressed" when no one could help save the house, she wrote. "On top of that, I have no money in the checking account, so if anything goes through now, I will get a bounced check and, of course, bounced check fees. And the girls don't have any more money for me to borrow."

Last week, her lender told Ethelda that she wouldn't be offered "cash for keys." It's a program meant to help banks reclaim foreclosed properties more quickly by offering money to residents who clean out their belongings and vacate by a certain date.

Without that cash, there's nothing for a down payment to put toward a rental. The family could soon become homeless.

"I saw my future here. You envision your life and how things will be," she said, still sitting in the living room. "This is like someone slit my throat. Just think about how people's lives have changed. It's heartbreaking."

Reporter Danielle E. Gaines can be reached at (209) 385-2477 or dgaines@mercedsun-star.com.

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