Related: California reeling from the foreclosure crisis

Profiles: Senior loses her independence

Wednesday, July 20th, 2011 

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

New America Media

ANTIOCH, Calif. — In 2005, Ethel Gist bought her “dream home” in a gated retirement community in Brentwood, Calif. Now three generations of Gist’s family members are living under one roof in a rented house in Antioch.

Photo by Joseph Rodriguez

Ethel Gist says she feels less secure after losing her "dream home" in a retirement community.

The loss of their homes has thrown their lives into upheaval.

The 68-year-old lost her Brentwood home in a short sale two years ago. During the same time, daughter Rosalyn’s house was foreclosed on. Gist now lives with her daughter and grandsons, who are 21 and 17 years old, in a four-bedroom house.  The retiree says the move meant her teenage grandson, whom she described as a “homebody,” had to transfer to a new high school — a transition he’s still getting used to.

Her other daughter, Rochelle, also lost her home in a short sale, throwing her family — husband and two children — into a tumultuous rental housing market.

Gist says all of their lives are less secure now.

“It’s kind of scary. You never know what’s going to happen,” Gist said. “Is this house  [that we’re renting] in default? Have we moved into a house that may be foreclosed on in the near future? There’s no real sense of security anymore.”

A few years ago, Gist was living in a serene development on a golf course.

“There’s a 24-hour guard at the gate, I just felt totally secure,” she said, adding that she thrived on the companionship of her neighbors and the “special bond” of living among peers in the retirement community.

“It was the type of community that I didn’t know existed,” said Gist, describing her fondness for taking walks, chatting with neighbors and getting involved in activities.

In 2009, at the height of the recession and housing crisis, Gist realized that she could no longer afford the lifestyle she wanted in her retirement. She got into trouble when her monthly payments spiked from $1,200 to $2,000 a month because of her adjustable rate mortgage.

Gist was living off of her pension after a career with the Social Security Administration. Gist’s attempt to strike a deal with her bank to reduce her monthly payments failed.

She decided it was better to walk away from the house through a short sale rather than damage her credit.

In the end, her unblemished credit history suffered, though, because she had helped her daughters buy their homes in Antioch, and both houses were in her name.

Now Gist spends her days answering the phones and greeting visitors in a small office at the Antioch Church Family, where she’s a congregant and part-time receptionist.

Gist says she enjoys the sense of “fellowship” that comes from working there: “If I know someone [a congregant] is sick, I call them,” she said, adding that the extra income helps, too. “I had access to anything I wanted,” said Gist, noting her former life as a homeowner and landlord with pristine credit. “All that has changed. I don’t feel as comfortable anymore.”

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.


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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.