Knock, don't answer: Alice Mae Polk is fighting to keep her Austin home after listening to a female stranger who promised her home repairs. (Daisey Winfrey/Contributor)

About seven years ago, a man came knocking on the door of Alice Mae Polk, trying to sell the 85-year-old elder on the almost mythical benefits of reverse mortgages. 

“He was a tall, light-skinned, black man,” Polk recalled. “He said that you can live in your house the rest of your life. He said that they fix your house and you’ll have money in the bank all the time. He said, ‘I have a car, I travel all the time, eat wherever I want to eat all the time.’ He said he lived in a mansion and his mother’s house was a mansion. But when he left our house, he didn’t get in no car. My children were rolling on the floor laughing.” 

Polk said that a year or two after the man’s appearance, a woman named Cynthia (whose last name she couldn’t recall) came knocking at her door. The woman struck up a conversation with Polk about her porch.

“She said it needed to be fixed and they would fix it and then she pulled out this piece of paper with [the letters] ‘FHA’ on it and a picture of a little house,” Polk said. 

FHA stands for Federal Housing Administration, but Polk didn’t name a specific program administered by the agency. She said that Cynthia told her that whatever was on the piece of paper was “Obama’s program,” which likely may have been a ploy designed to lower Polk’s defenses.

“It’s all psychological,” said SACCC volunteer Arnold Bearden, who’s among the organization’s many housing advocates. “Once they lure the seniors into feeling it’s OK, then the next step is to win their confidence.”

Polk recalled that Cynthia would come to her West Gladys home just about every Sunday — a car full of children. 

“She was a nice church lady. She’d say that I was her grandmother and all of this other stuff. She even bought me a phone, because I didn’t have one,” Polk said.

Eventually, Cynthia would begin showing up at Polk’s home with an older white man named Mark Diamond, who would employ a combination of charm and high-pressure sales tactics to goad Polk into signing a reverse mortgage on her home through his companies, OSI Financial Services, Inc., and Harbor Financial Group, to pay for the porch that Cynthia insisted need fixing. 

In 2009, Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan sued Diamond, along with five home repair and mortgage companies, for scamming African-American homeowners on the city’s South and West Sides out of nearly $1.3 million. 

According to a press statement by Madigan at the time, “these defendants purposely solicit homeowners in predominantly African-American neighborhoods, luring unsuspecting borrowers into deceptive refinancing loans and home repair contracts that they cannot afford and did not necessarily need…Now, many of the victims are at risk of foreclosure, and some have already lost their homes as a result of this deception.”

Diamond has been named as a defendant in more than 40 other civil cases filed by plaintiffs beginning in 1986, including the City of Chicago, individual homeowners and various property management companies. 

Five years after signing Diamond’s documentation, Polk is in a struggle to keep her home, which is still badly in need of repairs. 

She said that since Diamond told her that she didn’t need to worry about paying property taxes and insurance fees, she stopped paying them. Nowadays, she spends much of her energy shuttling back and forth between legal offices and on phone calls with representatives from financial companies to see whether or not her home is in foreclosure. 

Both Welch-Davis and Bearden insisted that much tougher legislation needs to be put in place to prevent more elders from experiencing what Polk went through. Until more comprehensive laws are enforced to stop solicitors from taking advantage of the elderly, SACCC’s organizers insist the list of victims will only grow.

“There needs to be a law that says you can’t go to a senior’s home, or anyone’s home for that matter, and solicit,” Bearden said.

“First you have to be regulated, licensed, insured and bonded to conduct business in the city. Secondly, you have to be disciplined to only stay in the area where you’re licensed to operate in,” he said. “Thirdly, we need to require independent verification that [ensures that people are competent enough to sign documentation].” 

As for Cynthia’s whereabouts, Polk said she can only guess. What she seems to be much more certain about is that she won’t let her experience with Diamond embitter her to humanity. 

“These people can talk to you; they act like they’re talking to relatives; I didn’t know that sweet talk. But I just can’t hate them,” Polk said. “I don’t let nobody make me hate.”


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