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Foreclosure leaves them just this side of homeless

It wasn't long ago that the home was their dream. Now, they find themselves balancing on the edge of foreclosure.

By MELANIE AVE, Times Staff Writer
Published October 28, 2007


SEMINOLE -- Evangeline Qandil turns the key of her 2001 Toyota Sienna, sitting in the driveway of the family's brick home.

"Wish me luck honey," she says to her husband, Nader, her eyes puffy from crying the night before.

The 30-year-old mother of two backs out slowly, past a fading for-sale sign and the water meter that has been shut off.

She's heading out to ask for public assistance.

"It's so embarrassing," she says, clutching a small Coach purse and a stack of unpaid bills. "But what can I do? I don't have a choice."

The Qandil family began a financial nosedive shortly after buying their $249,000 home last year.

Today, they are one of about 5,000 families in the Tampa Bay area facing foreclosure. In September, Florida's foreclosure rate was the nation's second highest.

Nationwide, the housing industry is going through its steepest downturn in eight years. Foreclosures have reached record levels, with one in every 550 homes in the process.

Like many, the Qandils' foreclosure came as a result of poor financial decisions, bad luck, the sluggish economy and a complicated mortgage.

Evangeline, her blond hair pulled back in a hasty ponytail, steers her minivan into a government parking lot.

She still can't believe how fast everything fell apart.

"It's just crazy."

The Qandils haven't made a house payment since April. They are $11,000 behind on a $189,000 mortgage.

Deutsche Bank, their mortgage lender, is weeks, or maybe days, from taking their home.

When the couple leave the house, they worry the doors will be locked when they return. They flinch when strangers knock on the door, thinking it's someone from the bank.

They owe $12,000 in other bills.

For Nader, an injured mechanic-turned-truck driver, and Evangeline, the owner of a failing consignment store, there's no time to think about long-term plans.

The Qandils are in survival mode. Food, water, shelter.

Everything else is simply too overwhelming.

"I feel like I'm dying inside," says Nader, 34, a quiet, dark-haired man who immigrated from Jordan. As the family's main provider, he feels like a failure.

"I do not see the light."

* * *

Evangeline is not the only one with her hand out.

At least two dozen people also are waiting inside the Florida Department of Children and Families office, where Evangeline tells a worker she wants to apply for food stamps, cash assistance and Medicaid.

"We're trying for everything," she says.

The day before, a utilities worker slapped them with a $110 fine after he caught them using water that had been turned off three weeks earlier because of a $346 unpaid bill.

The Qandils fiddled with the meter lock until they got enough water to brush their teeth and do dishes.

At the DCF office, a worker leads Evangeline -- a diabetic who hasn't eaten all morning -- to a cramped back room.

For more than an hour she types in answers to questions on a computer application.

A question asks: Who buys and eats the food in the family?

Evangeline is puzzled.

"I don't understand the question," she tells a worker, trying to whisper. "We don't have any income, so no one is buying any food."

Another question asks why no one in the family is working. She writes:

Nader was employed by Canteen Vending Company but was in an auto accident on 09/10/2007.

After Nader was rear-ended in the accident, a doctor put him on three different pain medications for two bulging discs and muscle spasms. He was restricted to light duty. Nader says his company didn't have any light duty, so he was sent home.

He filed a workers' compensation claim and was told he would eventually receive about $920 a month, or 66 percent of his pay.

He has yet to receive a check.

* * *

The family's decline began last November.

After selling a 900-square-foot Pinellas Park home for $205,000, they discovered a 1,400-square-foot home in Seminole.

The 1965 house was on a quiet street in a neighborhood of ranch-style homes.

It had everything they wanted. Three bedrooms. Two baths. A fireplace. A renovated kitchen with stainless steel appliances. Tile floors. A master bedroom with a view of the backyard pool.

It was close to Bauder Elementary, one of Pinellas County's best.

Most of all, it promised a safe neighborhood for the children, Kara, 10, and Aden, 2.

"It was a beautiful home," Evangeline says.

Nader preferred to rent, but his wife -- who had bought two previous homes -- felt renting "was just throwing your money away."

"I should have listened to my husband," she says now. "I wanted a house, house, house."

The Qandils agreed to buy the home when they heard the price had dropped to $249,000.

Mortgage broker John DeSautels handled the deal.

Money seemed plentiful.

Nader, a certified mechanic with Autoway Ford for four years, was earning $17.50 an hour, bringing home about $3,400 monthly.

Evangeline, a certified nursing assistant, was opening a new children's consignment store in Largo with her mother. They hoped Little Sprouts on busy Ulmerton Road would bring in $200 a day in sales.

* * *

With proceeds from the other home, the Qandils paid off debt from Evangeline's 2004 bankruptcy, which she said she filed because of bills from an emergency gallbladder surgery that wasn't covered by health insurance.

They also bought furniture, including a carved mahogany bedroom set, and inventory for the new store.

Christmas in their new home was the family's best ever.

"Here was a new chance," Evangeline remembers, "a new beginning."

But their finances took a turn.

In the spring, Nader left his commission-based mechanic job when business slowed. He found another job that brought home $1,400 monthly -- less than the mortgage payment.

The consignment store floundered. Its profits barely covered rent and utilities. Some customers complained about its erratic hours.

The Qandils realized they were in over their heads and put the house up for sale in April for $294,000, a Realtor's suggestion.

In July, Deutsche Bank filed a notice with the court.

So began foreclosure.

* * *

Two back-to-back open houses in the fall attract a handful of interested buyers.

But their mortgage arrangement comes back to haunt them.

While the Qandils bought the home for $249,000, public records list the sales price at $210,000. The couple say they did not understand and paid $39,000 directly to the seller.

The discrepancy puzzles potential buyers, who wonder about the large asking price given the home's $210,000 recorded sales price.

The Qandils drop the price six times, settling at $229,000. Still, no takers.

Competition is another factor. There are at least 95 similar homes for sale in the neighborhood.

One person finally makes a serious offer: $200,000.

Maximum.

The Qandils say no, hoping a better offer will give them money to move and repay money her father loaned them for the down payment.

Mortgage and bills aside, they hope to amass $3,500 -- first and last month's rent plus a security deposit because of their bad credit -- to move into a nearby three-bedroom apartment.

They list the names of family or friends where they might stay, but realize they have no place to go.

A scary thought strikes Evangeline. The homeless people she sees living on the street don't seem so removed from her middle-class life anymore.

"Seriously," she says, "that could be us."

* * *

Four days after finishing the application for food stamps, the mailbox is filled with news.

The family is approved for $460 a month in food stamps.

Another letter is from an attorney for Deutsche Bank, asking the court for a default judgment.

And a third is from Progress Energy. They have until 7 p.m. the next day to come up with $813.13 or their power will be shut off.

An interested buyer is supposed to come in two days. What if there's no power?

As Evangeline reads the mail at the kitchen counter, a knock comes from the front door.

Her eyes grow big. Worry lines stretch across her forehead until she realizes it's a neighbor.

After a brief visit, Evangeline grabs the phone.

She yells to her fifth-grade daughter: "Keep your brother busy. I have lots of stuff to do."

She calls 211, a health and human services referral number.

A recorded voice answers: Please stay on the line. Soft music plays. Our current call volume is abnormally high.

"Abnormally high?" Evangeline says. "Go figure."

Nader, circles under his eyes, walks through the house like a ghost. He and his wife love each other but they say they feel no intimacy. Fights erupt out of nowhere.

Finally, the 211 operator comes on to give Evangeline a list of local agencies.

"Do you know if any are available to call now?" she asks.

It's after 5 p.m.

Four agencies later, she's no better off. The groups say they either don't serve her neighborhood or they're out of money for the month.

She puts down the phone and sighs.

"I don't know," she says. "I'm down to nothing here."

* * *

The next morning, Evangeline sits at the computer, typing as many ads as she can think of on the free classifieds Web site Craigslist.

She posts a listing for the house, now almost a daily ritual:

DO NOT take my word this home is WELL BELOW MARKET VALUE!!!!!! A MUST SEE FOR YOURSELF!!!!!!

She writes one for the bedroom set:

I waited 9 years for this set and now I am forced to sell it ... we paid over $4,600 less than a year ago ... we are asking $3,500 OBO. MUST SEE!!!!!

As she moves to the kitchen, her knit gown hangs loose on her curves.

Last night when the family bought its first food stamp groceries at Publix -- $66.42 worth -- the scales showed her husband had lost 10 pounds in the past two months.

"Look honey!" he says.

Her loss? Twenty-one pounds.

The highlight of the morning is $1.99 Hungry Jack pancakes.

She tries to turn on the faucet, then smiles.

"I keep doing that," she says.

These days, water comes from a bottle. The family flush toilets with pool water and take showers at the homes of friends and family.

Evangeline stirs the mix in a stainless steel bowl as fast as she can, trying to finish in case the electricity is cut off.

Nader walks toward the bathroom in the same sleeveless Tampa Bay Buccaneers shirt he has worn for days. He dreads a request from his wife to call a younger brother for money.

"I'm going to take a shower," he says.

The shower is a sponge bath with baby wipes and water poured out of a plastic Disney cup: Where dreams come true.

* * *

The county's social services department okays the family for a one-time utilities assistance of $700. It pays the $456 water bill, and part of the $813 electric bill.

The Qandils return their computer to Sam's Club, but get store credit instead of cash.

They hold a three-day yard sale.

Remnants of their history together line the driveway.

Old clothes, a new Krups ice cream maker, a leather coat, a rusty tricycle. Two tables Nader gave Evangeline as gifts. A grill, a housewarming present.

The night before it begins, Nader drags boxes from the garage. Many of them have not been unpacked since the family moved in December.

"Oh look," Evangeline says, opening a box of old photos of Kara and Aden, with hardly any hair. Today the toddler's curly hair hangs down his back.

Evangeline gets lost in a memory.

Sometimes she wishes she could go back in time, before they bought the house.

"Those were the good old days," she says, returning the photos to the box.

On Saturday, a neighbor woman comes over to browse.

Evangeline, who has kept her family's situation secret, tells the woman about the overdue bills, Nader's accident, the house that just won't sell, her failing business, the foreclosure.

The woman leaves, but returns later with $100 in a white envelope.

With that, garage sale proceeds and borrowed bill money from Evangeline's mom, the electricity is turned back on one day after it was shut off.

Still, the interested buyer says the house shows "too dark."

A week later, the neighbor returns with another gift: a 3-inch statue of St. Joseph and a burial bag.

The women, both Catholic, know of the belief that burying a statue of the saint will hasten the sale of real estate.

That night, Evangeline, the kids and her mom kiss the plastic saint.

With a spoon, she slides it 6 inches underground, facing away from the house, just steps from the front door. She shrugs her shoulders.

"What do I have to lose?"

Times researcher Carolyn Edds contributed to this report. Melanie Ave can be reached at mave@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8813.