Detroit: A Place to Call Home

Southeast Michigan is full of people, not statistics. Detroit is a city full of families, not case studies.

March 28, 2016

Southeast Michigan is full of people, not statistics. Detroit is a city full of families, not case studies.

Still, Beth Martinez knows the stats and the challenges—unemployment, under-employment, lack of resources—facing the residents of Detroit.

Some might view this challenge as very daunting, but it’s what most excited her about joining MSU Extension as a foreclosure counselor and homeownership educator. The Detroit native says she wants nothing more than to return to her hometown and be a part of a great city’s resurgence.

For Martinez, who came to MSU Extension armed with nearly 30 years of working for big banks in Chicago and elsewhere, it was about fighting for people on the other side of the table.

“At one point, I was working in a position where I was recommending whether to foreclose or not,” Martinez says. “I didn’t want to do that anymore.”

The collapse of the housing bubble affected not only her clients—eventually she was laid off from her job at a large financial institution. Afterwards, she looked around and asked herself a simple question.

What’s next?

She knew she wanted to leave banking behind, and teach people.

“I was selling people things they didn’t need, and I was good at it. But there wasn’t a lot of satisfaction.”

She made the choice then to take her decades of experience and use it to fight to keep people in their homes. She wanted to do some good.

Since 2012, more than 11,000 people have received education and counseling from MSU Extension, with more than 66 percent of those who completed counseling able to keep their homes. Now MSU Extension is looking to have an even bigger impact in the Detroit area.

Martinez was hired in January 2015 and quickly learned how good a fit she was with the organization. She took the same tenacious attitude from her banking career and used it in a new role on behalf of those facing foreclosure.

“They used to call me Bulldog in my banking days,” Martinez says with a laugh while sitting in her Southgate offices preparing for a homebuyer education class.

The moniker fits better than ever as she uses the same mentality to represent her clients against bureaucracy, forms and a myriad of other obstacles. Martinez, a Detroit native, says she is excited by the opportunity to make her mark in her native city, and be a part of Detroit’s resurgence.

At one point in 2008, Detroit’s foreclosure rate was the highest in the nation. Though things have improved markedly, there are still challenges.

“There are 60,000 people past due on their property taxes,” she says. “What I see in my classes is average income of below $20,000 per year. These people aren’t looking for a McMansion, they just want a place to call their own.

“The truth is, homeownership isn’t for everybody, but it’s for a lot of people.”

Unfortunately, a lot of people in and around Detroit just don’t know about the help that is out there for them. Often, Martinez says, they think that there is nobody out there that cares for them.

Fabienne Ratkov, of Shelby Township in southwestern Michigan, knew there had to be help out there.

There just had to be.

Ratkov lost her husband, George, in 2013. He had a massive heart attack on the way to the hospital and by the time they arrived, doctors told Fabienne that he wasn’t going to make it. Two days later he was dead.

“I did more crying than I did living,” Ratkov, 64, says, recalling the day as fresh in her mind today as it was two years ago. She spent all of her money in making house payments to keep the house her family had lived in for 29 years.

By October 2014, she was out of money and started falling behind on payments. At its worst, she was $18,500 with more than half of her income needing to go toward mortgage payments.

“I felt like I was absolutely doomed,” she says, thinking back to the darkest moments. “I not only lost my husband, I lost my best friend of 43 years. I lost my everything, and now I was about to lose my house.”

Even worse, Ratkov says, her mortgage was sold to a new lender that she says had a greater than 90 percent foreclosure rate. Then, when it was discovered that the house was only in her husband’s name, the lender wouldn’t accept her payments.

“They want my house, that’s all they want,” Ratkov says. “They don’t want to help me.”

If the lender wasn’t going to help her, she needed to find somebody who would. That’s when she met Rob Weber, another MSU Extension foreclosure counselor.

Like Martinez, Weber knew that Ratkov needed an advocate who knew her options and how to navigate the process.

“In this job, persistence is key,” Weber says.

“When they realized they weren’t just dealing with this lonely old lady who had lost her husband, then, with Rob’s backing, things became a lot more hopeful,” Ratkov says.

Still, it took until the eleventh hour for things to turn around.

The foreclosure sale date had been set for June 26. As of June 25, the sale was still on. Ratkov and Weber were on the phone back and forth with the bank all day.

“I was already looking at apartments. We’d been here almost 29 years and just to walk away from this,” Ratkov says. “I’ve got three generations of stuff here. Now I’ve got to sell all this stuff just to be able to downsize into an apartment. I sold almost all of my husband’s tools. One of his toolboxes is still in my living room. That’s where he kept it and I just haven’t had the heart to pick it up and move it into the garage. These things are valuable to me, but they are trash to everyone else.”

Then, at the last minute, the bank relented and cancelled the planned sale.

Weber, with the help of Step Forward Michigan, a hardship assistance program designed to keep people in their homes, was able to put Ratkov on a path to making her payments manageable and keep her in her house long term.

“Eventually, I could see light at the end of the tunnel instead of a freight train,” Ratkov says. “It couldn’t have been done without Rob. Every time I talk to him he puts a smile on my face because I know he was there to help me when I needed him most.”

That desire to give back to their community and help people in need is the fuel that drives MSU Extension educators such as Weber and Martinez.

“Every day on the drive home, I ask myself, ‘Did I do something good today? Did I help somebody today?’” Martinez says.

“When I know I’ve helped someone keep their home, that’s everything. It stopped being about the money for me a long time ago, and it became about fighting for somebody else.”

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