Photo by Joseph Rodriguez

Related: California reeling from the foreclosure crisis

Profiles: No plans to retire

Thursday, July 21st, 2011 

The Investigative Reporting Workshop and New America Media profiled those hardest hit by the foreclosure crisis in communities of color.

New America Media

SAN FRANCISCO — It took Susie Ku and her husband, Jung Ku, more than 30 years to save the $100,000 needed for the down payment on their first home in Sacramento. Now with their life savings gone, the two are again renting a home in the same San Francisco neighborhood they thought they’d left behind.

“Stupid,” mutters Jung Ku, 68, said the former mechanic.

The couple, along with two grown sons, now lives in the residential Sunset District neighborhood they had lived in since arriving in the United States from their native South Korea in 1977.

“We bought a four-bedroom house in Lake Thomas in December of 2005,” recalls Susie, 62, speaking of the home she and her husband purchased for $430,000 in a new development near Sacramento. The two, who operate a convenience store in San Francisco’s financial district, had hoped to retire there.

Unlike many homebuyers at the time who took advantage of the overheated market to purchase houses with close to nothing down, they opted to pay a 20-percent down payment, using the husband’s 401(k) to cover a portion of the cost. “Now with his retirement funds gone, we’ll probably have to work for the rest of our lives,” says Susie.

The pair spent five years paying down their mortgage on the Sacramento home, which amounted to close to $3,000 a month, while continuing to pay rent on the same San Francisco house where they’d raised their three sons. “We also had to cover business-related costs, relying more and more on our credit cards to get by,” says Susie. “It was terrifying, especially after the value of our home dropped by more than half in 2008.”

In order to defray some of their expenses, the two initially rented out the new Sacramento house, while continuing to work in San Francisco. “That was a disaster,” says Susie. “The family we rented to couldn’t afford the payments after the father lost his job. After they left, we had a hard time finding another renter.”

In 2010, the Kus made the decision to cut their losses via a short sale, holding on to the possibility of re-entering the housing market in the future.

In the meantime, they continue to run the corner market they’ve operated for the past 20 years, looking for ways to bring in more money. “We’ve still got a lot of debt to pay off,” says Susie, “both from our home loan and from the credit card bills that piled up over the course of several years.”

“We work 14-hour days, five days a week,” says Jung, as he prepares to work on a friend’s car that is sitting in their driveway. It’s 7 p.m. “He’s left the mechanic business behind, but friends still ask him for favors,” said their son Tom.

“Like a lot of immigrants, my parents saw owning their own home as part of the American Dream,” the younger Ku said. “They shouldn’t have bought when they did, but they haven’t given up on their dream. They’ll try again.”

What Went Wrong

Donald Barlett and James Steele are revisiting America: What Went Wrong, their landmark 1991 newspaper series, in a new project with the Investigative Reporting Workshop. Over the next year, the project team will examine how four decades of public policy has shaped America's ongoing economic crisis.


Back Story

The authors talk about What Went Wrong

Donald Barlett and James Steele talk about the project, and why they decided to revisit a book they wrote two decades ago, in a series of video clips produced by the Workshop.

Nation's Story

Who pays the taxes?

Who pays the taxes?

We feature charts, maps, photos and other visualizations that reflect the state of the economy as part of our What Went Wrong project. This column chart shows the growing disparity between what individuals and corporations pay in taxes. In the 1950s, the difference was 22 percent. Recent figures show the difference is 62 percent.

Rags to rags: Economic mobility hard to come by

New Pew Center on States report confirms that moving up the American economic ladder is difficult, even though most people have more income than their parents.

Homelessness takes it toll on Florida's youngest

Florida, as a center of the housing boom, still struggles to recover from the Great Recession. Financial stresses and widespread foreclosures have placed families in precarious situations, resulting in a spike in child homelessness. Susannah Nesmith reports in the Broward Bulldog.

Older workers face challenges in Silicon Valley

An advanced degree and experience in the tech sector should be a ticket to a job in today's economy. But older workers in the heart of the new economy, Silicon Valley, are finding their resume is not the issue. Aaron Glantz reports in The Bay Citizen.

 Subscribe to the RSS Feed

Read an Excerpt

The Betrayal of the American Dream on Google Books

The Betrayal of the American Dream on Google Books

Check out the first chapter of Barlett and Steele's 2012 book here.