Emmanuel Njoku, an immigrant from Nigeria, turned to real estate to achieve the American dream. But the dream became a nightmare.
Emmanuel Njoku, an immigrant from Nigeria, turned to real estate to achieve the American dream. But the dream became a nightmare. John Ydstie/NPR
Njoku and his family used to live in this 7,000-square-foot house. Despite having modest income from his job as a pharmacist, Njoku says he was able to purchase this and other properties because of skyrocketing home prices and easy credit from lenders.
Njoku and his family used to live in this 7,000-square-foot house. Despite having modest income from his job as a pharmacist, Njoku says he was able to purchase this and other properties because of skyrocketing home prices and easy credit from lenders. John Ydstie/NPR
Emmanuel Njoku thought he was living the American dream. The immigrant from Nigeria invested in real estate and rode the housing boom to great heights.
At the peak, Njoku owned 16 properties in Prince George's County, Md., just outside Washington, D.C. But with the housing bubble now burst, Njoku is living a nightmare.
Basically every other home in the upscale Promise neighborhood near Bowie, Md., is in foreclosure, says Njoku. He says one potential buyer took a look at the neighborhood, where Njoku once owned property, and decided it must be cursed.
In fact, more than 800 homes in this ZIP code are in some stage of the foreclosure process, according to the research firm RealtyTrac. One of them is the home Emmanuel Njoku and his family used to live in — a sprawling 7,000-square-foot house finished in stone. He purchased this million-dollar dream house at the age of 34, as a first-generation immigrant.
But Njoku couldn't afford the payments and moved out three months ago, and the bank is threatening foreclosure.
Njoku, a pharmacist by profession, got into real estate when his wife's health deteriorated after the birth of their second child. He hoped to supplement his salary. He succeeded beyond his wildest dreams. As the value of the homes he owned shot higher, he pulled equity out to buy other homes.
Njoku says it was all made possible by skyrocketing home prices and easy credit from lenders who helped him purchase homes while he was showing very little income.
"I have two guys that I literally called the miracle workers because they did a miracle. We're talking about situations where a salary of $20,000 purchased a $560,000 house."
Sound impossible? Here's how he did it: The down payment came from a credit card, and as the value of the house rose, Njoku was able to cash out $60,000 and then an additional $100,000. He says it was a "money generator."
An eager alliance of builders and lenders and investors, like Njoku, helped fuel the housing bubble. At the peak, in the summer of 2006, his 16 properties were worth more than $8 million. His net worth was over $2 million, he says.
"The appreciation factor — the refinance ability — made a sweet ride," he says. Njoku acknowledges he was naive. He, like a lot of others, thought U.S. home prices would continue rising indefinitely. But now about half of his properties are in foreclosure, and the other half are worth less than he owes on them. He works nights as a pharmacist, but the income doesn't come close to covering his obligations. Bankruptcy is a real threat.
And as the bubble — that Njoku admits he helped to create — bursts, many of his neighbors in this majority African-American county are struggling, too.
"I don't honestly know how these communities are going to be able to bounce back. Quite frankly, it's scary because you have these beautiful homes, these beautiful communities that were striving, and now all of a sudden there's a silent suction of hope and progress out of the lives of people. It's just hard to put to words," Njoku says.