Joe Makes a Home for Sophie

by Tony Chavira

Joe had spent 13 years in Los Angeles working as an animator to build up to the job he’d coveted since he was a kid: animating for the Walt Disney Company. Renting the whole time, he dealt with the madness of corporate bureaucracy with a smile on his face at just about every animation company in the city, looking only to the future. He was an artist, and had a great love for what he did, even if it meant dealing with bungling corporate types. What was most important was he that he made lots of amazing, lifelong friends, got married, and watched his beautiful daughter come into the world.

Then, finally, he got a job as an animator for Disney. But things didn’t feel any different. Most large entertainment companies are highly bureaucratic, and Joe dealt with the same problematic issues as before. What was supposed to be one of the high points of his life—the job he had been building toward since he was 5 years old—felt like the extension of a lifestyle he didn’t enjoy. As much as he loved being an artist and loved the work Disney did, the structure was confining, leaving him lost and unfulfilled at every turn.

After speaking to his wife and considering his options, he decided to look elsewhere, and accepted a well-paying job in the emerging video game industry in Austin, Texas. He hoped that the frustration he had felt was with the city of Los Angeles and the way he interacted with the television and film animation industry there. Now they would be able to start their lives away from the complications of the maddening crowds. Between his income and his wife’s, they, their daughter and his stepdaughter could afford a house in Austin and really settle down. Even if his dream job hadn’t been all it was cracked up to be, he would finally have the happy, fulfilled life he had wanted all along.

When Joe’s marriage ended a year later, on the very day their offer on a new home was accepted, his wife took his stepdaughter and left him to find a way to make the substantial payments. Emotionally overwhelmed, Joe spent every night for a month moving everything from their apartment to the house by himself. He managed the divorce and closed all the joint accounts, and began depleting years and years of savings to pay the mortgage. But he wasn’t alone: to his immense relief, his wife had left his three-year-old daughter Sophie with him. And it’s a terrible understatement to say that he loves her immensely.

Joe and Sophie's house

Having to pay the bills single-handedly and manage his new single-dad lifestyle, Joe took on a few freelance jobs, including teaching and drawing. But work was becoming trying, and paying the bills became more difficult as the recession hit. Unwilling to let his credit take a beating, Joe made his mortgage payments with every scrap of money he could put together, taking every opportunity possible to work from home so that he could manage the day-to-day aspects of being a dad. Taking Sophie to school, picking her up, making sure she was fed and happy: all of that good stuff wasn’t going to do itself. Besides, every free moment he had with her was good for his sanity.

Last year, he began to resent his job. He also started to realize how much he didn’t enjoy being a homeowner. And after visiting for Christmas, he began to notice just how much he missed his family in upstate New York. Working for a large company still left him unfulfilled, it was draining his creativity, it took time away from his personal projects and (most importantly) from Sophie. Things needed to change. He had lived long enough doing what he was told and working like a madman. It was time to take control of his schedule and be there for his daughter.

But being a single-dad homeowner had exhausted his savings. He was late on a payment. Then late on another. After the third, the bank froze his mortgage. He tried making up the payments, but the bank would not accept them unless they were made within a one to three day window, which he missed. Once the window passed, the amount owed increased substantially. And once that window passed, the amount increased so dramatically that Joe could not afford to pay it.

Fortunately, the federal government was running a loan modification program, which at least gave Joe the option of keeping the house until he could put it on the market. Until then, he would have to continue dropping Sophie off at school at 7 am and picking her up as late as 7 pm in order to afford their payments. He would have to continue working late into the night grading papers and updating artwork. He would have to continue feeling trapped ... for a little while longer.

Naturally, the government had a difficult time determining whether or not Joe was qualified for the loan modification program. They would only let him apply if he was eligible, and he spent the better part of a month trying to get in contact with someone he could convince he was eligible. Finally, he got a supervisor on the phone, who sent Joe the official application for the Home Affordable Modification Program. Weeks passed; then he got a call about missing documentation. He took care of it and resubmitted the application. More weeks passed; then he received a call about signing a section incorrectly which he handled right away. Several more versions of the document were traded back and forth, until Joe received an e-mail letting him know about a legislative change that required him to submit more paperwork.

And then he waited. In fact, submitted the final application a few weeks ago. Now he will be wait between 30 and 120 days to find out if he gets the modification. If he does, he’ll sell the house and move out as soon as Sophie finishes kindergarten in June. If he doesn’t, the worse-case scenario is that he’ll walk away from the house with nothing but ruined credit.

It had looked like Joe had everything he wanted: a wife, kids, his dream job at Disney, a house. The problem was that he never had freedom: freedom from the corporate structure, freedom from the limitations of his schedule, freedom from his burdensome house and its mortgage. He needed to be free to spend time with his Sophie. To get to know her and watch her grow up. To take her places, to teach her to enjoy art and drawing. Most of all, Joe needed the freedom to start over with a clean slate among the people he loves.

The life he had built for himself wasn’t anything like that. But now it will be.

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Next week, we’ll discuss the process of buying a Southern California fixer-upper in Southern California as your first home, and the financial and time requirements that entails.

Tony Chavira is the President of FourStory, a nonprofit organization that promotes fairness and social justice through strong writing and storytelling. He is also the Program Developer at RACAIA Architecture, writes and posts comics at Minefield Wonderland, and teaches Business Report Writing at California State Polytechnic University, Pomona.
tony@fourstory.org

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