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January 28, 2010

Renters, beware of trapdoor

For the Matthews family, it's already a tight fit. But it promises to get tighter -- and more stressful. Sam Matthews, 28, his wife, three children, brother and mother share a five-bedroom, two-story home they've rented in a pleasant, new North Merced development.

"That's the only way to really survive right now -- banding together with family," Matthews said. "Everyone in the country, in Merced at least, is living paycheck to paycheck. We banded together for reasons of survival."

But Sam and his wife, Jannel, found out Jan. 13 -- the date of their fourth wedding anniversary -- that the home they'd been renting for two years was going to be auctioned off by a bank because the property's owner hadn't made payments.

The couple was on vacation, celebrating in Los Angeles. The happy mood evaporated.

"For a homeowner, it is hard, but for a renter in a home, being swept from underneath with no notice, it is rather abrupt and scary," said Jannel, 28.

"That means more than you know to people like us," said Sam, who is a full-time student at Merced College. "We have to go without as many things as possible in the next three months so we can save enough money to find a new house and make sure we have the deposit and first month's rent."

The family's only income right now comes from disability, Social Security, welfare and college financial aid checks. They live bill to bill, but Sam said he's always paid his rent on time.

Beyond the loss of a stable household looms the inevitable pressure of an unknown future. Now, stress and anxiety have erased the comfort they used to feel.

The family is considering splitting into three: one place for Sam, Jannel and their three children, ages 8, 2 and 1; another for his mother and brother; and a third place for his father. Why? They're convinced that any large home like the one they've gotten used to is at risk of foreclosure.

"It's hard. Where am I going to go that's not getting foreclosed on again? We're probably going to have to split up," Sam said. "We're either going to have to split up or consolidate even more (by all moving together to a smaller place)."

"This is really going to affect my family in more ways than I can really think of," he added. "Monetarily and physically, this move could potentially kill my parents."

Sam's mother Diana has diabetes, lung disease and is severely overweight. She has not walked in more than a year, Sam said. His father, Ralph, is in similar shape. He recently divorced his mother after 29 years of marriage and moved out -- just to keep higher disability benefits, Sam said. His brother, Stephen, is also overweight, but helps Sam take care of their parents.

"Our world came crashing to an end" with the notice of the trustee's sale, Sam said.

The foreclosure has shaken his trust in the local rental market. "Now when you look at a house, you are wondering if it is solid," he said. Sam said he's heard stories of college students who had been foreclosed on twice as renters at two separate homes.

Now that his rented home is in foreclosure, he's confident he won't get the security deposit back.

"You have your house pulled out from under you -- and then you can't get a job?" he asked. His wife was working two part-time jobs at Sears and Food for Less, but had to quit because they couldn't afford babysitting costs.

The family is now on welfare.

With high unemployment and foreclosure rates, "Merced seems like ground zero on this," Sam said.

Sam worries about the emotional toll. "I might get stressed, so I might be meaner to the kids, and then that affects them. The effects get spread all around. Each person feels it in different ways that I can't even know," he said.

There are months when his family is just shuffling money, delaying payments on one bill to pay another -- "robbing Peter to pay Paul."

Sometimes, he's at a loss what to do. "I've never dealt with this before. Renting for 10 years and I've never dealt with it," Sam said.

Jannel's been feeling the most anxiety, the couple said. "Being rushed out of your house, that sucks," she said. "I get very stressed out. I'm a very anxious person."

The auction date, Sam said, is set for February. They hope they'll be able to stay for three months before being kicked out. They received the notice "five days after we made rent. $1,500 cash," Sam recalled.

The house was brand-new when they all moved in and "the place has rubbed on us. It has become like home. We've tried to put love in this house. We've tried to take care of it as if we are the owners," Sam said.

They also like their neighbors and don't want to uproot their 8-year-old son to a new school.

"It's a really good neighborhood," he said. "We have three police officers on this side of the street, five on this side."

Jannel said going through foreclosure as a renter has tested the family.

A For Sale sign was staked out on their front lawn months ago. They were told not to worry, that the owner had many offers from investors who wanted to re-rent the house.

A friend helped them find a home for his mother and brother. Sam and Jannel looked at new places for themselves for awhile, but gave up. "I don't know what we're going to do. That's the terrible part," Jannel said.

"I've been very tense. My hands and joints ache because of it. My body really reacts to stress.

"I've probably grown 20 more gray hairs dealing with this," she said. "I'm not even joking."

Some final determination would help ease the stress a lot, she added.

"If we could just plan, it would be better," Jannel said.

They need closure on foreclosure.

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