'Greatest Generation' Struck By Mortgage Crisis The stagnant housing market has made many seniors who are in delicate health reluctant owners of second homes. Unable to live in their houses but unable to sell them, they live in limbo and worry.
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'Greatest Generation' Struck By Mortgage Crisis

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'Greatest Generation' Struck By Mortgage Crisis

'Greatest Generation' Struck By Mortgage Crisis

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From NPR News, it's All Things Considered. I'm Jacki Lyden.

Ms. ANNE WHITMAN (Executive Director of Marketing and Sales, Homewood): Who gets old in this country? Look around on the television. You go from youth to death. So it doesn't happen that way. People do age. And I think that in this country we've been too long in denial on that.

LYDEN: That's Anne Whitman, the executive director of marketing and sales for a retirement community called Homewood. For our occasional series "Faces of the New Economy," we look now at some of the middle-class members of "The Greatest Generation." These are the people who became homeowners after World War II and had hoped to sell those homes to finance retirement living.

Mr. FRED JOHNSON(ph): I'm Fred Johnson, and my wife and I just moved here. We have a home that is still up for sale.

Ms. MARY GOODWIN(ph): My name is Mary Goodwin, and I have a nice house for sale.

Ms. LILLIAN MYERS: I'm Lillian Myers. We moved here from Oak Forest Drive, a wonderful house still for sale.

Mr. PETE SPIKER: My name is Pete Spiker, and I have a house up the street. It's been up for sale since the middle of January of this year. And it's been reduced 60,000.

LYDEN: Pete and Mary and Lillian and Fred are all new residents at Homewood. It's in Williamsport, Maryland, nestled in the hills between West Virginia and Pennsylvania. The turning leaves offer abundance on every ridge. It's a more uplifting sight than the economic horizon. Of the 400 seniors at Homewood, many live independently in cottages and apartments. Marketing Director Anne Whitman is a force of nature as she tells the newcomers about what her staff can do for residents.

Ms. WHITMAN: Maybe you'd like to have the housekeepers come up and really make it look good before you show it off to your friends and family. And if you're interested in doing that...

LYDEN: This is a business, a caring business with a heart, Anne Whitman says, and a church affiliation, United Church of Christ. Still, she needs to keep those bungalows and apartments full to stay in the black. The entire industry is being squeezed. The national chain, Sunrise Senior Living, just reported a net loss and announced layoffs and a freeze on new developments. Anne Whitman says Homewood is still doing fine, but she's having to work much harder to get new residents.

Ms. WHITMAN: My waitlist has come to almost a staggering halt, so that if I have a vacant unit, it takes me more calls and I have to go further down my waitlist to find someone who'll say, yes, I can move now. I'm going to move today.

LYDEN: When Anne's new residents get together, the discussion about real estate has the confessional air of a 12-step support group. Take Ruth Foltz.

Ms. RUTH FOLTZ: It was a really nice home, but I have to tell you that I sold it and settled for it last Thursday.

Unidentified Woman: Oh, good for you.

Ms. FOLTZ: But I have to tell you, we put it up for auction. I knew I wouldn't get what I expected. But I took it because I could not take care of two places, going back and forth with oil and light and water and sewer and all like that. And I'm glad I auctioned it off because now I don't have to think about it anymore. So that's my story.

LYDEN: Bud Myers' story is on display in a special Veterans Day exhibit at Homewood Library. There's a photo of him in Berlin where he was a combat photographer. Bud and his wife Lillian haven't sold their house, so they had to borrow the money to make the $116,000 payment on their bungalow at Homewood.

Mr. BUD MYERS: It's the first time in my life that I borrowed money for something.

LYDEN: And you're how old?

Mr. MYERS: Well, I'd be 85 in January.

LYDEN: Eighty-five in January, and you have never, ever had to take out a big loan before, not even when you bought your house, the house...

Mr. MYERS: I got out of the army. I built the house. A brand new house for $6,400.

Ms. MYERS: Everybody in our generation, our goal was to have a house, you know, own a house. That was the big thing.

LYDEN: Bud's wife, Lillian Myers.

Ms. MYERS: And so that's what we did. We worked our you-know-what off to get a house. And we depended on that as a lot of our future, selling the house. And now you can't sell your house, so you have to depend - hopefully you have other assets. But if you don't, you're in bad shape.

LYDEN: If there's one specter hanging over this group, it's the Great Depression. Here's Pete Spiker, age 80.

Mr. PETE SPIKER: My father was a barber, and beside him was a confectionary. Beside that was a grocery store. My first year in grade school, I can remember they had benches all in front of those three stores, and the men sat there side-to-side. There might be 15 or 20 men there, or more. And there wasn't any work. They were just trying to find a job. My father used to, you know, give free haircuts if they'd sweep up the floor and wash the windows. But there just wasn't any work then.

LYDEN: Was that kind of an object lesson for you, to not get too deeply in debt, to not carry more than you could?

Mr. SPIKER: My father always said, don't buy a thing unless you can pay for it. Pay for it as you get it. That kind of stuck with me.

LYDEN: But Pete Spiker is having to dip into his savings now, withdrawing $1,100 a month to rent at Homewood. He doesn't have much choice. He's already survived a heart attack, and he came here after getting double pneumonia last Thanksgiving. Anne Whitman...

Ms. WHITMAN: When we first met Pete, he was in the nursing section of our retirement community. And when I saw him, he was in pretty rough shape.

LYDEN: But he battled back to good health in the Homewood gym, and he wants to stay strong for his wife who he visits daily at a separate Alzheimer's center. The thing that nags at him, though, is that unsold house. He whips out his real estate agent's card from his wallet as if it were a picture of a grandchild and offers to show us his brick ranch house, less than a mile away. The home is tidy behind manicured bushes he still trims himself. We start on his enclosed patio.

Mr. SPIKER: It's got electric heat and a fan.

LYDEN: Everything is just in pristine condition. You left a few things around to make it look homey. That's good, a mobile.

There's not a thing wrong with Pete's sturdy house. But homes in this zip code are now on the market an average of 449 days. Just two years ago, it was only 79 days. Pete Spiker has had only one offer, too low. We walk with him into the kitchen.

LYDEN: Well, here's some other real estate agents cards. Are these...

Mr. SPIKER: That's the ones that have showed them, yeah.

LYDEN: Wow, who showed it? So, we have - we'll just use first names. Stephanie's(ph) been here and Debra(ph), Roger(ph), and James(ph). Randy(ph) makes five. Janine(ph) makes six. And Linda(ph) makes seven. So, would you miss this house?

Mr. SPIKER: Well, a house for me is just a house, you know. There's too much for me to keep up.

LYDEN: What will it mean financially if you can't sell this house?

Mr. SPIKER: Well, eventually, I'd have to leave down there, come back up here until I sell it. So eventually, if I keep taking $1,100 out of my savings, it's going to run out sometime. But just, hopefully, I can sell the thing in the next six months, I hope.

LYDEN: All this weighs on Pete Spiker.

Mr. SPIKER: It's a constant worry. But I think they got you on medicine - what do they call it? For depression? To keep me from getting depressed, I guess. But you know, I've got a lot on my mind because, you know, life is getting worse all the time. You never know what's going to happen there, but you live through it.

LYDEN: Back at Homewood, one couple, the Johnsons(ph), did get good news right after our visit. They'd been waiting seven months for a sale, and they accepted an offer, literally one they couldn't negotiate. It was take it or leave it. At Homewood, everyone congratulated them. You can see a photo of Pete Spiker and his house on our Web site, npr.org.

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