A Veterans Widow versus Predatory Lending, the VA and PHH (Ocwen).

In April, Gov. Phil Murphy signed a package of new laws designed to keep families in their homes. As part of that legislation, mortgage lenders are required to give more time to homeowners to get back on their feet, if payments were missed, before issuing notices of their intention to foreclose.

Veterans Affairs is trying to evict widow of Vietnam vet from Wayne home

Mary Anne Pérez never had everything she wanted, but before her husband died, she could at least tell people that she had what she needed.

The couple carved out a modest patch of earth for themselves, their children and their dogs on Fayette Avenue, a low-lying road near the Lincoln Park border, in a neighborhood notorious for its flooding problem.

For this working-class family, it was a tiny sliver of paradise. It was their sanctuary.

But now, Pérez stands to lose the home where she and her family have lived for 22 years.

The family has met a series of financial hardships since its patriarch, José Pérez, a factory worker and Army veteran of the Vietnam War, died from colon cancer in April 2009. He was 60.

Those issues, precipitated by Hurricane Irene and the devastation it caused to the family’s property in August 2011, were made worse in the past four years because they are in a legal tug of war with a mortgage lender that foreclosed on them.

The storm was a major setback for the struggling family, but the foreclosure may leave them homeless.

Pérez and her family could be evicted from their property, and she said the entity trying to take it from them is the one she would most expect to help her: the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.

“I feel like it’s a game,” Pérez, 62, said last week in the front yard of her home, which was still decorated for Christmas. “You join the Army, and they give you a house. Then, they take it away.”

‘This is a disgrace’

A loose strand of holiday lights dangled to the ground from the wooden railing of a wheelchair ramp that Pérez’s daughter, Marianna, used until she died of kidney failure in March. Six-pointed antlers poked out of a plastic wreath.

That synthetic green ring, an American flag and a “Beware of Dog” sign supplied the only colors at the home on a gray and misty Tuesday morning.

A teacup Chihuahua was yipping indoors.

State Sen. Kristin Corrado, a Republican from Totowa, and veterans from Anthony Wayne Post 174 of the American Legion gathered outside to support the family.

“Mr. Pérez fought for this country,” said Joseph Fricker, the post commander. “The land we stand on, he fought for. To have it taken away from his family after he passed away is an atrocity.”

John Harris, officer in charge of veterans’ services for Passaic County, was the first point of contact for Pérez after the foreclosure, and he has attempted to help her.

“A veteran’s family should not be homeless,” Harris said. “This is a disgrace.”

A complaint filed against Pérez in state Superior Court in Paterson by her mortgage lender claims that she defaulted on her loan, in the amount of $141,095.

The company, PHH Mortgage Corp., initiated the foreclosure in April 2018. The Mount Laurel-based firm claimed that she stopped making monthly payments in August of the prior year.

Judge Randal Chiocca ordered in September 2018 that the property be sold at a sheriff’s auction. After two stays of that sale, the auction was held in April.

PHH was the winning bidder, and according to the most recent court records on file, the company assigned its bid to the VA, because it helped to finance the family’s purchase of their home.

VA home loans, a program that was created when the landmark GI Bill was signed in June 1944, are offered to veterans or their surviving spouses by private lenders.

The loans are partially backed by the VA, as long as prospective homeowners maintain good credit and enough income to meet monthly payments.

But if a home carrying a VA mortgage is foreclosed on, the agency acquires the distressed property and markets it for sale.

On Jan. 31, the court issued what is known as a “writ of possession,” demanding that Pérez and her family turn over the property to the VA “without delay.”

Dennis Uhlmann Jr., an attorney whose Bloomfield law office represents the VA, did not return a call seeking comment.

The Office of Public and Intergovernmental Affairs for the VA, in Washington, D.C., did not respond to questions about the agency’s acquisition of the Pérez family’s home.

‘These are human beings’

In April, Gov. Phil Murphy signed a package of new laws designed to keep families in their homes. As part of that legislation, mortgage lenders are required to give more time to homeowners to get back on their feet, if payments were missed, before issuing notices of their intention to foreclose.

“We’re getting the attention of elected officials, and that’s the only way this nightmare is going to end,” Harris said. About the Pérez family, he added: “These are human beings — they shouldn’t be thrown out to the street, like garbage.”

A housing market analysis released last month shows that the number of auctions and bank repossessions reported in the U.S. in 2019 went down by 21% from the prior year. However, the same study reflects that New Jersey still had the highest foreclosure rate of any state.

The Garden State has led the nation in that statistic for five years running.

Stanley Pérez, 35, the eldest of Pérez’s children, said there should be more financial resources for veterans’ families. “The American way is to help,” he said. “That’s what makes this country strong — by helping one another.”

When Irene hit, he said, rising floodwater from the Pompton River — an 8-mile tributary of the Passaic River, flowing about 200 feet west of the family’s property — deluged their basement and ground floor, leading to tens of thousands of dollars in damages. Insurance covered most costs to repair the home, but he said they had to live in a hotel for a year.

“It doesn’t matter if you’re rich or poor,” he said. “Everyone’s going through something, and sometimes you fall behind.”

His mother, meanwhile, has been bringing home very little as a part-time cashier at a nearby convenience store.

“I’m ready to retire, but I can’t retire,” Pérez said. “You’re doing the right thing, and then somebody on the other side does the wrong thing. It’s not right.”

Philip DeVencentis is a local reporter for

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