Courtesy of The Orlando Sentinel
January 27, 2012
You don't want to be injured as emails about an elderly Korean War veteran losing his house come screaming into the inbox and land with an ominous sizzle.
You, dear reader, were stunned to learn in Sunday's column that Sherman McCray, 81, is in jeopardy of losing his Clermont home to foreclosure over a debt to his homeowner association that started at $338.91. By the time a Lake County judge signed a final order, the total of $4,272.24 included lawyer fees, late penalties, costs and other stuff that just runs up the tab.
And, you're mad. No wonder. The homeowner association at the Vistas off U.S. Highway 27 south of Clermont chose the harshest way of collecting what McCray owes.
The twice-widowed, long-haul trucker missed an association payment during one of a myriad of health problems. He's had a heart attack, two eye surgeries, two back surgeries, a knee replacement and a gallbladder removal in the last several years. He uses a wheelchair most of the time.
McCray began paying $100 a month in a payment plan. What he didn't know is that checks he wrote all were going to pay down the big debt, so he was getting "behind" on new payments. Those were then considered as "missed" by the association, which lumped on even more penalties and late fees and lawyer expenses and whatnot.
McCray's health struggles combined with his misunderstanding of how the homeowner association works and the full extent of its power — along with a dash of stubbornness — led him to try to handle this critical matter himself. He just didn't believe that a homeowner association in America could foreclose on his house for such a small sum.
McCray has been paying some of his medical expenses, and he said he does not have the cash to bail out his house. Documents at the clerk's office indicate that he probably owes more on the house than it could be sold for, so getting a loan on the equity seems unlikely.
McCray said he hired a lawyer as a last-ditch plan. But he didn't do that until after the final judgment, firmly believing foreclosure couldn't happen.
"I am depending on the lawyer. He is my last hope," McCray said.
But leave it to practical Lake County folk to be solution oriented. A number of readers asked how they can donate, and one very generous south Lake Navy veteran has offered to match contributions dollar-for-dollar, up to half the debt if necessary.
Since your local columnist can neither add nor subtract without adult supervision, Sue Cordova, CEO of United Way of Lake & Sumter Counties, has kindly offered to keep track of donations and, if enough come in, pay off the debt. And, she said, she has a little discretionary fund that might be able to make a small contribution, too.
However, the first contribution is coming from McCray himself. He was planning to pay another $500 to a lawyer after the first of the month when his Social Security and small pension checks come in. But with the possibility that his debt could be paid and his house saved from being sold, he said he would rather use the cash to pay the debt.
Excellent. Too much money already is going to lawyers in this scenario. Well over half of the $4,272.24 is for attorney fees.
The Vietnam veteran who couldn't bear to see McCray lose his home is John Sowers, whose second career after retiring from the service was 23 years in Walt Disney World's computer department. He said he's not well off financially, "just incensed at the idea of the HOA doing what it's doing."
Sowers wrote in an e-mail, "I am appalled and disgusted that our society has degraded itself into such a state. Yes, there are rules — laws — that are on the books and they seem to favor the money grabbing HOA's."
Many regular board members in homeowner associations are afraid to buck the lawyers advising them, even when they know they are not doing the right thing, wrote Sowers, who lives in a community with a homeowner association.
"I want him to keep his house. He has worked for it. He has paid for it. And he and his dog deserve to live there for the rest of their days," Sowers wrote.
Other folks offered help, too. One Vistas homeowner suggested that a garage sale in the community help pay McCray's bill. Mary Robertson said that she and her husband fell behind on homeowner fees several years ago, and they were kindly treated. However, she said she knows how scary the situation can be, and she plans to ask the homeowner association this week for permission to organize a sale. Since she works full time, she is hoping that other Vistas residents will help her if the association says yes.
In addition, there's an effort to get McCray's total debt reduced. A chunk of it is "late fees" and "penalties" and other items for which the homeowner association has not laid out any cash. The association's attorney has said he will ask its board members whether they would be willing to reduce the amount to what they have spent.
Slicing the total back to actual cost would be the right thing to do. Let's hope they step up and do it.
Meanwhile, for those who wish to donate, checks should be made out to United Way. They MUST have the name "Sherman McCray" in the memo line or attached in a note so that the money goes directly for McCray. (This is not a tax deductible contribution because tax rules forbid United Way from extending that courtesy when money is collected for one person.)
Contributions may be sent to: United Way, C/O Sue Cordova, P.O. Box 490720, Leesburg, FL 34749.
McCray said he never dreamed anyone would want to help him. On Monday morning, he was still shaking his head over that notion. He said he knows he will be able to keep up with the homeowner assessments if he can get out of this financial hole.
And, thank you, Lake County. When people here learn of a genuine need, they step forward to help. You are the folks who make me proud to live here. I'll be letting you know how things are going.
association pursues extreme option
foreclosure -- against Korean War veteran