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Foreclosing costs

Owners aren't the only ones caught in the mortgage crisis. Renters, like this East Boston family of immigrants, are feeling the fallout, too.

Chao Xiong Ma and his wife, Man Yi Ma, inside their East Boston apartment. The Bremen Street building in which they live was foreclosed on last year, and in January, much to the Mas’ surprise, a crew of men arrived one morning to try to move them, and their belongings, out. That attempt failed, but a new one is underway. ‘‘If we can’t find housing,’’ says Man Yi Ma, ‘‘we’ll have to sleep on the street.’’ Chao Xiong Ma and his wife, Man Yi Ma, inside their East Boston apartment. The Bremen Street building in which they live was foreclosed on last year, and in January, much to the Mas’ surprise, a crew of men arrived one morning to try to move them, and their belongings, out. That attempt failed, but a new one is underway. ‘‘If we can’t find housing,’’ says Man Yi Ma, ‘‘we’ll have to sleep on the street.’’ (Boston Globe Photo / Aram Boghosian)
Email|Print| Text size + By Ric Kahn
Globe Staff / March 9, 2008

Man Yi Ma thought she was being robbed.

Unable to speak English, the 45-year-old factory worker from China summoned the only backup she could: an aunt in her 70s.

As Ma told the tale, it was those two against a crew of brawny men who, late on a Monday morning in early January, were methodically cleaning out her family's East Boston apartment, from furniture to food.

She rushed into her bedroom and began jamming her valuables inside a big black pocketbook: necklace and bracelet, green cards and passports, and $3,000 in cash the family of four had squirreled away.

At some point, she realized the unfamiliar men were not there to steal her possessions, she recounted through an interpreter.

They wanted to take her very home.

Sobbing, Ma instinctively pleaded with the men in Chinese: "I pay my rent. Why are you forcing me to move out?"

But the band of workers was not Asian, and didn't understand. One of the men, who had earlier tugged on her sleeve, she said, was now pushing her out the door.

Ma dug the heels of her black leather work shoes into the kitchen's vinyl floor. But she was no match for the man, or the force behind him - the unrelenting fury of a foreclosure that was sweeping her away.

Outside, Ma clung to all she could grab before being put on the street: her stuffed black pocketbook, a box that included rice and medicinal herbs, and a bucket of chicken wings and salted fish.

Man Yi Ma had waited 13 years to come to the United States. Now, she had nowhere to go.

Increasingly, others in the city have found themselves in the same predicament.

From 2006 to 2007, the number of foreclosures citywide more than doubled, from 276 to 705. Last year, nearly half of those involved multifamily dwellings, according to The Warren Group, a real estate publishing firm.

While the might of foreclosure is overpowering homeowners unable to pay their mortgages, the rampage of sudden eviction is also knocking out unsuspecting renters like the Ma family.

"These are people caught in the wake of the crisis who are really the last to know and among the worst to suffer," said Judith Liben, a housing lawyer at the Massachusetts Law Reform Institute.

For tenants from other cultures who don't speak the language but have to contend with complicated legal proceedings, the process can be even more devastating.

The Mas came to Boston from China in April 2006. Already, as renters, they are facing their second foreclosure displacement in two years.

"Any time you're evicting somebody from their home, it's going to be very traumatic," said Sandy Yeung, a lawyer at Greater Boston Legal Services, who is trying to help the Ma family fight the eviction and find stable digs. "If you don't speak English, and don't know the legal system, you are even more confused about what's going on."

Ma was eating a plate of rice, vegetables, and fish when the men came to her third-floor door at 150 Bremen St. and started moving her out. Panic-stricken, she called her husband, who works 12-hour days in a restaurant on the South Shore. But the management there would not let him go home, she said.

When the family had previously lived on Chelsea Street, Ma said, they had to leave after only six months. But it was nothing like this: The landlord was Chinese, she said, and explained that he could no longer afford the mortgage payments and property taxes. The bank was taking over, but he gave the Mas time to find a new place.

Now, on Bremen Street, the moving squad - which was working with a constable - was quickly loading clothing and cooking utensils into boxes, and Ma said she had no warning.

"Why are you forcing them out?" her aunt demanded in Chinese. "They pay rent. They're good tenants."

To the end, Ma said, she had faithfully been paying $500 rent in person for the two-bedroom to the owner who lived on the second floor, lesser amounts if she handed it in early.

Only recently did Ma find out that the man was no longer the true owner, said Yeung, the legal services lawyer. According to land and court records, Gaspar Vetrano was foreclosed on in May, and was evicted. He agreed to leave the premises by October, records show, but Ma said she saw him there until early January. And then suddenly, she said, he was gone.

In a document filed last month in East Boston District Court, Yeung put forth a possible explanation for why the moving men so startled Man Yi Ma:

"The Mas now believe that their landlord Gaspar Vetrano stole their mail, specifically, any notices" about the eviction "so that he could continue to collect rent payments from them."

Vetrano could not be reached for comment. He did not leave a forwarding address with Ma, she said, and his phone is disconnected. His last known lawyer said he hasn't represented Vetrano for years.

"He took advantage of us," Ma said about Vetrano.

She was back in her flat at 150 Bremen as she said this, sitting in a small living room with a Disney "Enchanted" poster on the wall.

After she was left on the curb, Ma recalled, she made her way to the East Boston courthouse, accompanied by her English-speaking teenage daughter.

A head's-up veteran of the clerk's office noticed from the files that the eviction paperwork, which Ma said she'd never received, had expired, and a judge ordered that the Mas be immediately moved back to their third-floor walkup.

Still, the eviction attempt has been rekindled, and Ma said she does not know what to do.

After a life of farming for table food, and selling dim sum to local villagers, Ma said, she, her husband, and their two children came to America for a simple reason. "To make money," she said.

The plan was to gather funds. Later, she and her husband would return to their village. The kids would go on to college and careers.

But now the unforeseen foreclosures have dried up much of the family's savings, and some of their spirit. "I'm worried," Ma said.

The Mas find themselves still living in limbo between landlords, a place common to other tenants in properties that have suffered foreclosure, housing advocates say.

Ma frets she'll be out some $3,700 she said she paid the old landlord during a time she now believes he didn't really own the place, and is confronting an uncertain future with a new landlord she doesn't even know.

In December, she said, there were several so-cold-you-can-see-your-breath weeks when the heat was off, and the family slept in street clothes and boiled water in an electric pot for hurry-up baths.

There are now mice scurrying under the sink and near the fridge, but Ma said she does not know where to go to fix that.

"I guess I can complain to the bank," Ma said.

It's not that simple, records show. The new owner is listed as Deutsche Bank National Trust Company, trustee. But John Gallagher, a spokesman for Deutsche Bank, said his company only plays an administrative role and is not involved in the foreclosure or the eviction. The actual owners, he said, are a group of investors. The Boston lawyer handling the eviction case, Donald Pitman, declined to comment on an ongoing matter.

Whoever the owners are, records show they want the Mas out of 150 Bremen, though there may be a deal brewing that could let them stay.

For now, the Mas are scouring the neighborhood in search of "For Rent" signs, without luck in a market teeming with fellow foreclosure evictees. They're signing up for precious public housing spaces, which can take months or more to free up.

Man Yi Ma said she can feel the walls closing in.

"If we can't find housing," she said, "we'll have to sleep on the street."

Ric Kahn can be reached at rkahn@globe.com.

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