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Shell Game

Seven Neighbors, 11 Foreclosures, and More Than a Million Dollars' Profit in One Baltimore Neighborhood

Photographs By Frank Klein
George Agelakis
Ken Koehler on the roof deck of his home.

Family Ties?

According to land records, the small group of people who bought, traded and sold each other houses here before defaulting on their loans are more than just neighbors, lovers and/or housemates.

According to land records George Agelakis, for example, is step brother to both Bayardo Alvarez [pdf] (who gave him 223 S. Madiera St.) and Kenneth C. Wallace [pdf] (from whom Agelakis bought 211 S. Madeira St.)

Other than sharing a step brother (or two—George's brother, Emmanuel, also bought property here) the relationship between Wallace and Alvarez is unknown. Wallace is the domestic partner of Kenneth Koehler, at 2215 Gough St., while Alvarez resides (or at least did until recently) a few steps away, at 2225 Gough, with Joshua Goldberg, a mortgage broker who facilitated the property transfers and also notarized the claims of familial relations.

Alvarez, meanwhile, is also the step-son of Janet Praid [pdf], who lives a few doors south at 320 S. Madiera, and formerly owned 2225 Gough.

So—assuming their claims land records are true—Praid is Alvarez's step-mother, Alvarez is George Agelakis's step-brother, Agelakis is Wallace's step-brother, and Wallace is (according to Koehler) Koehler's domestic partner.

Goldberg says it would not be fair to characterize the people in this story as closely-tied. His reason? "Because I said it would not."

By Edward Ericson Jr. | Posted 10/1/2008

To see information and photos of the properties in this article, go to Foreclosure

The 200 block of South Madeira Street is idyllic on this August weeknight, with handsome potted plants next to the stoops, a crew-cut boy throwing a Frisbee, and a blond girl doing perfect cartwheels. "We all watch out for the kids," says Valerie Kowlaski, who moved in about a year ago. "We all know each other, and I didn't expect it when I moved into the city."

Ironically, a recent foreclosure has made this block just west of Patterson Park better, neighbors say. And the foreclosure appears to have profited the homeowner as well. (Or at least his business associates and alleged relatives.)

The departure of George Agelakis--and his pack of noisy little dogs--is a relief. "We were writing letters," says one neighbor who moved in two years ago. "The police were here I don't know how many times."

It was the kind of dispute that Baltimore's tightly packed neighborhoods see all the time. The dogs yipped nightly. The neighbors petitioned. One neighbor says he at first tried to reason with Agelakis, who operates a hair salon three blocks away, but he "was an asshole," the man, who asked that his name not be revealed, says.

The glass doors on the back of Agelakis' former home at 223 S. Madeira St. are smashed. Neighbors say Agelakis left the house in the spring; he declined to comment for this story.

News stories about what's been dubbed the "foreclosure crisis" tend to follow a set narrative: evil lenders push subprime loans on naive borrowers, leading to defaults by "struggling homeowners" and the cascade of foreclosures now devastating the financial system.

There are, indeed, struggling homeowners losing their houses as part of the current economic straits. But a look at the financial history of 223 S. Madeira, and at more than a dozen other transactions involving Agelakis and six of his neighbors, reveals another side of the foreclosure crisis now roiling Baltimore and making headlines and government policy across America.

This small group of people is involved with at least 11 foreclosures--some completed, others pending--within a half-mile radius of 223 S. Madeira St. At least three of them are investors who borrowed heavily even after the real estate bubble burst and then stopped paying their mortgages. By selling several houses to Agelakis, one man appears to have made about $750,000.

Until recently, at least, none of these people were subprime borrowers.

 

Last year, foreclosure activity in Baltimore City reached levels not seen since the flipping scandal of the late 1990s. State and city officials trying to stem the foreclosure crisis have focused on saving homeowners from so-called predatory lenders who pushed high-interest loans. In interviews over the summer, several of them brushed aside questions about the extent to which real estate investors have driven the foreclosure boom.

"Whether or not we're in that situation, I don't know," says Sally Scott, co-chair of the Baltimore Homeowner Preservation Committee, which for three years has been working to save low-income homeowners from foreclosure.

Diane Cipollone, of Civil Justice Inc., a nonprofit working on the foreclosure crisis, says her group's main focus is providing legal representation for homeowners facing foreclosure. Although she authored the report of the Flipping and Predatory Lending Task Force that was impaneled after the scandals of the 1990s, she sounds confused when asked about the role real estate investors have played in the current foreclosure crisis. The current focus, Cipollone says, is "how do we help homeowners, not how do we help investors."

There is no state or federal agency tracking foreclosures with an eye toward examining the burgeoning real estate investor class, but according to Robert Strupp, of the Community Law Center and an expert on real estate, "We do see it, the rise of investor-owned properties going into foreclosures."

Unlike "struggling homeowners," investors often have little to lose in a foreclosure. During the past decade, the finance industry's provision of schemes such as "piggyback loans" (lending the 20 percent down payment at a higher interest rate than the main mortgage), "option ARMs" (which allow the borrower to choose a monthly payment that is less than what's needed to begin paying down the principal), and "teaser rates" on mortgages (which were far below the market interest rate at first but soon reset above the market rate) encouraged investors to buy homes with no money down. Many of these so-called Alt-A loans were made to borrowers with good credit scores, but who did not have to document their incomes. Critics dubbed them "liar loans."

Three years ago, The Baltimore Sun reported that more than two-thirds of the home purchases in the first quarter of 2005 were by real estate investors, and City Paper profiled one investor who thought the bubble was about to burst, leading to a new round of foreclosures ("Flipping Out," Feature, Aug. 3, 2005). With home prices so high in many cases that rental income could never cover the mortgage payments, speculators were banking on quick resales in a rapidly appreciating market. When the market began to cool in late 2005, many of them were unable to sell for what they owed.

That's what happened to Janet Praid. She takes credit for 10 rehabs since 1999, mostly in the Butchers Hill and Fells Prospect neighborhoods surrounding her beautifully appointed home at 320 S. Madeira St., a block down from Agelakis' (former) house. "I have actually lost three houses myself in foreclosure," Praid explains during a telephone interview on Aug. 12.

Praid says real estate agents remained unreasonably optimistic in the early months of the downturn. She put her investment properties, in the 100 block of North Montford Avenue, on the market in late 2005 and early '06, not long after the time when nicely refurbished rowhouses on that street might have fetched $300,000. "They sat," she says. "I finally just let them go. After the hurricanes, the New Orleans thing, America just kind of went into a nonspending mode."

But Praid did not just let her homes fall into foreclosure. Land records indicate that Praid borrowed at least $150,000 more than her properties were worth after the market turned against her, including more than $340,000 borrowed on a house that, after foreclosure, sold recently for $219,000.

In a bankruptcy filing, Praid claims that she earned no money in 2006 or '07. Robert Grossbart, Praid's bankruptcy lawyer, says he does not know how Praid, with zero income, refinanced her houses for more than she apparently spent rehabbing them. "That wouldn't be part of the bankruptcy," he says.

Just around the corner from Praid lives Kenneth J. Koehler, whose real estate empire--he has owned 27 houses, he says, mostly in the Fells Prospect neighborhood--looks secure.

Koehler says he bought his first house here for $7,000 in 1999, quickly adding several others, including, in 2004, the $1,000 purchase of the house his mother grew up in on the 300 block of South Madeira.

But unlike Praid, Koehler appears to have beaten the odds during the real estate market slump, selling several houses for double or triple their value, clearing a gross profit of more than $700,000. His buyer, George Agelakis, fell into foreclosure for all of his Fells Prospect properties just as Koehler bought a failed diner that Agelakis and his brother, Emmanuel, operated downtown.

Koehler insists that these individual business deals are in no way related. In a telephone call on Aug. 19, a few days after a cordial meeting in his home, Koehler's tone is stern. "I will tell you, they are not connected," he says of his dealings with George Agelakis and his brother. "If I see something [in this story] that suggests they are connected, you will hear from my attorney. Just stick to the facts, and there's your story."

 

One surprising fact: Two years before losing 223 S. Madeira to foreclosure, Agelakis received the house for free from his mortgage broker's housemate.

According to land records, in January 2006 Bayardo Alvarez bought 223 S. Madeira for $115,000, borrowing the full amount and signing an affidavit saying the home would be his "principal residence."

In April 2006, as the home's renovation got underway, Alvarez signed papers to place George Agelakis on the deed. No money changed hands, and Alvarez claimed in the papers that Agelakis is his stepbrother. (Agelakis' wife, Catherine, says Alvarez is not related.)

Alvarez's home address, according to these documents, was 2225 Gough St. A phone number he gave as his rings Josh Goldberg, the mortgage broker who notarized the documents. Goldberg also brokered several loans for George Agelakis, Kenneth Koehler, Janet Praid, and Aura Munoz, the operator of the title company that settled most of the defaulted loans detailed in this story. At least until this week, Goldberg resided at 2225 Gough, with Alvarez, a few hundred feet south of 223 Madeira St.

One year after Alvarez put Agelakis on the deed (but only two days after that action was recorded in public records) Agelakis took out a $327,250 mortgage against 223 S. Madeira. The nicely rehabbed house next door sold at about the same time for $134,500 less.

By this time, Agelakis had already nearly doubled the debt on another house he owned with his wife, Catherine, five blocks south at 2207 Essex St. The couple had bought the house in 2005 for $250,000. By October 2006, Agelakis had borrowed a total of $475,000 against it. The house went into foreclosure in mid-2007.

But even as Agelakis lost his home on Essex Street, he was buying four more houses in Fells Prospect from Koehler or Ken Wallace, who lives with Koehler.

According to land records, Agelakis bought 211 S. Madeira from Wallace for $365,000 on April 17, 2007, taking a $292,000 mortgage. (Land records notarized by Goldberg claim that Agelakis is also Wallace's stepbrother.) In May, Agelakis paid Koehler $325,000 for 214 S. Chapel St., borrowing $240,000. A month later, on June 13, Agelakis bought 212 S. Castle St. from Koehler for $360,000. Agelakis swore on those mortgage documents that he would live in the Castle Street house (not 223 Madeira St., four blocks east) and borrowed $305,000. On Aug. 16, 2007, Agelakis bought a third house from Koehler, paying $270,000 for 227 S. Chapel St. Agelakis borrowed $202,500 to make that purchase. All of these transactions were handled through Glen Burnie-based Skyline Title.

In essence, it appears George Agelakis took equity from his Essex Street home, and cash from 223 S. Madeira, and then spent at least $280,000 to make down payments on the four other properties he bought from Koehler and Wallace for about $1.3 million.

During the real estate bubble, alley houses like these, after luxury renovations, sold for as much as $300,000. In early 2006, for example, one neighbor paid $281,000 for his Madeira Street property, which features granite countertops, high-end cabinetry, and stainless appliances.

But most of the houses Agelakis bought were not opulently renovated. Baltimore City records show no building permits at all on either 227 or 214 S. Chapel, both of which appear to be modest rental units. City records indicate that 211 S. Madeira and 212 S. Castle received little more than new front windows and a face-lift--the Formstone removed and the underlying bricks cleaned and re-pointed--although 212 S. Castle appears to have been further renovated.

At the market's peak, unrenovated alley houses and so-called shells in this neighborhood sometimes changed hands for as much as $120,000, according to neighbors and area realtors. But by 2007. when Agelakis was buying them, they had fallen hard. "Last time I went to an auction, last summer, they had come down to $80- or $90,000," says Victor Corbin, president of the Fells Prospect Neighborhood Association. For some reason, Agelakis paid about three times that much for his Chapel Street properties.

And for some reason, an appraiser assured Agelakis' lenders--Taylor Bean and Whittaker of Florida and First Magnus of Arizona--that these houses were worth upward of $300,000 each.

Lenders have foreclosed on all six properties Agelakis acquired since 2005, and available court records indicate that Agelakis made few (if any) payments on the mortgages. The debt on 214 S. Chapel, for example, exceeds the amount of the original loan by more than $14,000.

The Agelakis foreclosures reverberate beyond the Fells Prospect neighborhood. The lender on 212 S. Castle, Taylor Bean, sold that loan to Freddie Mac, the giant "government sponsored entity" (GSE) that has bought mortgages since it was chartered by Congress in 1970. Freddie Mac and its larger sister, Fannie Mae, hold about half the home mortgages in the country, valued at $5 trillion, and they have been devastated by nonperforming loans and foreclosures, despite having relatively few "subprime" loans in their portfolios. On Sept. 8, U.S. Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson announced an effective re-nationalization of the companies while investing $200 billion of the public's money to backstop their assets.

In September 2007, Freddie Mac took over Agelakis' Essex Street home for $402,000, the outstanding balance on the lien it held. At an auction held on April 17, 2008, Freddie bought back the note on 212 S. Castle for $319,000. Thus does George Agelakis, in his small way, threaten the wallets of taxpayers across the country.

About Agelakis, mortgage broker Joshua Goldberg says, "I can't tell you about anybody who has been or who is our client." Goldberg also will not divulge the name of the appraiser for the Agelakis loans. "I'm not willing to release the names of my business partners," he says, amending that quickly to: "or the companies that we do business with."

Goldberg will, however, speak generally about the impact of foreclosures on his employer, Worthington Mortgage. "We've been in business since 1997," he says of the company, whose resident agent is his mother, Ilene Goldberg. "We have closed in excess of 900 loans . . . from our count somewhere between seven and nine loans have gone to foreclosures. One percent or less--that's substantially lower than the national average for a broker, which is somewhere around 3.6 percent."

Worthington, Goldberg says, is a "boutique business" catering to "well-heeled" customers with good credit. "But," he says, "the way the economy has turned unfortunately, things that would not ordinarily have happened can happen."

In the early days of his investing, Ken Koehler was unable to find anyone to help him renovate his houses. He says he even charged the plywood he used to board them up on his credit card.

"I was always in the hole, I never had any cash, but I just started collecting houses like some people collect coins," Koehler explains. "My philosophy was, buy a lot of houses on the same block and change the neighborhood--I got a few friends to come in.

"I control my own market. They were easier to manage that way," Koehler continues during an initial phone conversation. "I had one friend that I let in--he bought two on the block as well . . . Joshua Goldberg, lives around the corner. Because he was a friend of mine I could say, `Fix it up this way, fix it up that way,' and I would see my [property] values go up as well."

In fact, Goldberg's name is on no properties in the neighborhood, although land records show that his housemate, Alvarez, bought five and is now facing foreclosure on three houses, including 223 S. Madeira. Asked about this, Koehler contends he never said Goldberg bought houses in the neighborhood.

"I still think the neighborhood is very strong" despite the real estate downturn, Koehler says. His house was built in 1874, he notes, and has been restored to "like it might have looked in the 1870s. All the molding, all the lighting is correct."

Indeed, Koehler's living room is appointed like a Victorian parlor, replete with a chandelier hanging under an ornate ceiling medallion, lush custom draperies, oil paintings, Queen Anne-style furniture, and a grand piano.

He estimates he spent $325,000 rebuilding the place after paying about $95,000 for it six years ago. "I was worried about overpaying," he says. But the location--right off the park, near stores, bars, the Inner Harbor, Fells Point, Canton, and the Johns Hopkins medical campus--set his mind at ease.

Koehler, 39, says he graduated from John Carroll Catholic high school in Harford County, but was too busy being entrepreneurial to spend much time in college. Still, "I haven't done too badly," he says. "I just bought a restaurant downtown."

That restaurant, at 8 Park Ave., reopened last week as the Park Avenue Grill. It was formerly known as the Parthenon Diner; it opened in March and had closed by July. It was operated by George and Emmanuel Agelakis.

"I'd rather not talk about him," Koehler says of George Agelakis. "He owned Caesar's Forum, the beauty salon down the street. I don't know what his whole deal is. I think he's just a shady guy."

Koehler sidesteps a question about how Agelakis bought several houses from him shortly before Koehler decided to buy his failed restaurant.

"He never owned a restaurant," Koehler corrects--it belonged to his brother, Emmanuel. "Actually, I paid too much money for the restaurant," Koehler says. The amount, Koehler says, is "a private matter." (A lawyer for the owner of 8 Park Ave. says the Agelakis brothers were "tenants," and that so is Koehler.)

Land records indicate that Emmanuel Agelakis purchased two alley houses in Fells Prospect this year, paying roughly twice their market value. On Jan. 30, he bought 132 S. Chapel from Koehler for $216,000, taking a $205,000 mortgage and signing a "first-time buyer" affidavit. On April 14, Emmanuel Agelakis bought 207 S. Chapel from Bayardo Alvarez for $251,000, borrowing the full purchase price. Alvarez had bought the place in November 2005 for $122,000, and proceeded to borrow an additional $100,000 against it after that. Emmanuel Agelakis did not return a phone call from City Paper.

According to Koehler and several other sources, while buying (or defaulting on) their Fells Prospect properties, the Agelakis brothers were running the Parthenon Diner, as Koehler puts it, "into the ground."

"He's an idiot," Koehler says of George Agelakis. "He's in there renovating his hair salon, and it was fine before. The sign says it's closed for renovation. You don't close a hair salon that's doing well. And it was doing fine."

On Aug. 27, George Agelakis, 38, arrives in district court to answer charges that he assaulted his estranged wife, Catherine (she says he tried to run her down with his Lexus SUV). "I don't want your card," he tells a reporter who asks to speak to him. "I don't want to talk to you. OK? See ya later."

Agelakis' assault case (one of two pending) is postponed until Oct. 8.

 

Janet Praid declines to talk about her neighbor George Agelakis. "It would not behoove me," she says of the man whom land records list as the stepbrother of her stepson.

It is the late morning of Aug. 14, and Praid is sitting under bright sunshine on an elaborate trellised deck in the backyard that she calls "my oasis."

"My company built this house," she says of 320 S. Madeira, and it was quite a project. "As soon as we got in there, it fell down, it was so full of termites."

Today the house has granite counters, perfect paint, gleaming wood floors. Praid, 51 with spiky brown hair and a taste for colorful art, is a well-regarded fixture in the neighborhood. Though unlicensed by the Maryland Department of Labor, Licensing, and Regulation as a design professional, she operates a custom-design business specializing in high-end residential renovations. (Last week she said she no longer operated the company.)

Praid says the influx of careless "out of town" investors into the neighborhood moved her to become co-chair of the Fells Prospect Neighborhood Association's land-use committee (on which Ken Koehler also sits). "We saw a lot of houses fall down," she says. "We were really trying to just put a stop to these unscrupulous developers."

Since then, she says, the market has taken about $100,000 of value from a typical alley house. "There's a lot of empty houses on all the streets," she says, estimating at least two or three on every block, many carrying more mortgage debt than can be covered by market rents.

Praid says she thinks a lot of people got in over their heads during the real estate bubble, borrowing more than their homes were worth and then trying to flip them. The government bailout programs ought to distinguish victims from players, she suggests.

"Are we bailing out the people who legitimately bought a house that was affordable? I think we should in those cases," Praid says. "But if we bail out people who do a 125 percent loan and all the rest, I mean, sooner or later you--a light has to go off.

"This [these foreclosure programs] would not be for investors, and I wouldn't even ask."

According to land records, Praid, like a lot of investors, straddled the line between owner/occupant and investor.

In November 2002, for instance, she claimed "first-time buyer" status on a $91,000 purchase of 2225 Gough St., even though she had bought a house across the street, 2212 Gough, in 1999 to rehabilitate it.

Records indicate that Praid rehabbed both homes, taking 2225 as her principal residence after selling 2212 in 2003 for a profit (that home was subsequently sold to Koehler, in 2007, for $320,000).

Praid rehabbed and sold two other houses in 2003 and '04, making profits on both. In September 2004 Praid purchased 126 N. Montford, about seven blocks north and east of her Gough Street home, paying $83,000, borrowing $180,000 using 2225 Gough St. as collateral, and selling just a few months later for $265,000.

In March of 2005 Praid bought 103 N. Montford for $123,000, taking a $98,000 mortgage. A few months later she bought 117 N. Montford for $85,000 (borrowing $223,000 for the rehab), followed on Sept. 20 by 105 N. Montford, for which she paid $172,000 and borrowed $238,500. All told, just as the market peaked in the fall of 2005, Praid spent $380,000 for the three fixer-uppers north of Patterson Park, borrowing more than $559,000 to rehab them.

"I remember thinking she may be biting off more than she could chew," says John Goldbeck, a contractor who says he worked closely with Praid on the Montford Street projects, and lent her an additional $85,000 plus about $20,000 in labor. "I thought she shouldn't have bought 105, didn't think she'd be able to get [her investment back]. Banks were tightening" their lending standards.

In October 2005 Praid bought 320 S. Madeira from Bayardo Alvarez. She paid $185,000 and borrowed $285,000.

By January 2006, as the bottom slid out of the housing market, Praid began refinancing the North Montford houses for ever greater amounts. She took a $241,500 loan on 103 N. Montford, followed in March by a $266,000 loan against 117 N. Montford, signing an affidavit of occupancy on the house. That same month she refinanced 105 N. Montford for $261,000, and refinanced 320 S. Madeira for $297,300. An affidavit in the loan file says that was her principal residence. In June 2006, Praid borrowed an additional $100,000 against 2225 Gough--her residence, according to an affidavit in the loan file--a month before she turned it over to Bayardo Alvarez for nothing. On that deed, Praid claimed to be Alvarez's stepmother.

"Bayardo? Are you kidding me?" says Goldbeck, who claims to have known Praid and her late husband for several years and used to live in the neighborhood. "As far as I know he is not her stepson."

Praid eventually defaulted on loans encumbering all her unsold houses except the 2225 Gough St. property, on which Alvarez has defaulted. Available court records indicate that Freddie Mac backed at least one of these loans--on 117 N. Montford--amounting to tens of thousands of dollars of bad debt. In this way, Janet Praid contributed to the crisis now gripping financial markets in general and Freddie Mac in particular.

In November 2006, Goldbeck sued Praid for the money he lent her plus back pay. He won an $85,000 judgment in February 2008, but that judgment became moot on June 2, when Praid filed for protection under Chapter 7 of the U.S. bankruptcy code. "I'm the main person she filed bankruptcy because of," Goldbeck says.

In her filing, Praid says 320 S. Madeira is worth just $255,000, while the loans outstanding total $376,000. She pledges to pay that mortgage and keep the house.

"I still love this neighborhood," Praid says, standing on her veranda in August. "It'll come back. We're just going through a little glitch, that's all."

Asked about her bankruptcy filing, Praid declines to answer any further questions. Asked whether Praid lived on the money she borrowed against her Montford Avenue rehabs, her lawyer, Robert Grossbart, is no more forthcoming. "The questions you're asking are pretty probing," he says. "Why would I answer those questions?"

 

On July 2, 2008, a substitute trustee was named to handle Bayardo Alvarez's mortgage on 2225 Gough St., pending foreclosure. What is remarkable about this default is that--on paper at least--the house was free. Two years ago, Alvarez received this house as a gift from his ostensible stepmother, Janet Praid, even as Praid paid Alvarez $185,000 for what was then a dilapidated alley house just down the block.

According to land records, on the day Alvarez received the home, he remortgaged it with a $385,000 "pay option" adjustable-rate loan, meaning he could choose to pay less each month than would be required to pay off the loan. The new loan paid off Praid's existing $204,000 mortgage plus the $100,000 line of credit she had taken out, and delivered to Alvarez about $70,000 in cash.

A month after taking his loan (and 11 months before it was recorded in the public record), Alvarez, 30, took out an additional home equity line of credit totaling $110,000. This increased the debt on 2225 Gough St. to $495,000. Like the main mortgage, this loan was not recorded until a year after it had closed. Skyline was the title company in both cases. (Alvarez did not respond to messages left on his car and stuck in the doorjambs of his home.)

On July 24, a substitute trustee was appointed to collect debt outstanding on 307 Baylis St., another Alvarez property. Land records indicate that Alvarez bought the home, which is in Canton, in late 2004 for $75,000. Alvarez refinanced in 2005, taking out $50,000 in cash and claiming the house as his "principal residence." He took another $25,000 out in an April 2006 refinancing and apparently defaulted, owing double what he had paid for the building. Although there were no building permits taken out for work at 307 Baylis, a neighbor says the house has been "redone." The front is now vinyl-sided. Now in "pre-foreclosure" status according to the private firm RealtyTrac, neither default has made it to court as a foreclosure filing as of press time.

All told, it appears Alvarez has taken about $255,000 in cash from these two buildings since 2005. Assuming he spent, say, $50,000 "redoing" Baylis Street, he would be left with $205,000. Koehler and Wallace's profits on the five homes they sold to the Agelakis brothers exceed $850,000. George Agelakis appears to have borrowed about $270,000 more than he spent buying those houses. Even after paying for a new deck at Essex Street and a gut rehab as 223 S. Madeira, he could have had some $100,000 left over. Praid's apparent profit from borrowing exceeds $150,000. Summed together, this group's defaulted loans could have yielded them more than $1.3 million. Unless the real estate market rebounds, lenders stand to lose at least that much.

Josh Goldberg, the mortgage broker who lives with Alvarez, does not think it would be fair to suggest that he, Alvarez, Koehler, Wallace, and the Agelakis brothers share close ties.

"No it would not," Goldberg says in an Aug. 19 telephone interview. His reason: "Because I said no it would not."

To those who would note that he shares an address with Alvarez, Goldberg asserts that 2225 Gough St. "is a multiunit building," a fact not apparent from land, zoning, postal, or city building permit records. In a subsequent telephone call, he denies that he still lives at 2225 Gough, though at press time the same two cars that have been in the carport all summer--a Mini and a VW--are still there.

Goldberg also will not talk about Janet Praid, who quit-claimed her house to Bayardo Alvarez, or the relationships between and among them. "I can't comment upon anything that I have done for my clients," he says. "And with that I think I should end this conversation. You have a lovely day. It's been a pleasure speaking with you."

He calls back minutes later to parse the meaning of his notary stamp on the document that claims Alvarez is George Agelakis' stepbrother. "In the case of a notary, you're attesting only to the validity of the signature and the person who signed," he explains. "The facts of the document are not necessarily read [by] a notary. I just read the signature page."

Goldberg suggests a reporter check with the title company.

 

Aura Munoz says Josh Goldberg is an honest broker. "He's actually done my loans for me in the past," she says. But, "he's not like our number one client."

Munoz, who founded Skyline Title in 2001, is sitting on a love seat in her empty office on Crain Highway in Glen Burnie. She has plenty of time to explain the title business for a reporter: These days her company is lucky to do 10 closings per month, she says. In the bubble days she was doing 50 or 60.

Although she has traveled to George Agelakis' salon to close some of his mortgages, Munoz says she knows little about her clients. "They come here, I process the paperwork," she says. "That's all I do."

Munoz says she doesn't know why so many of these deals took months--sometimes more than a year--to be recorded. Sometimes the delay was to find a lawyer to sign off, she says. In some cases the papers might have been rejected by the jurisdiction--perhaps because of a math error. "The lien sheet has to be accurate," she explains.

Robert Strupp, of the Community Law Center, says one should be cautious in assigning blame for any particular foreclosure. "There's no doubt that there are lenders out there that are victims," he says. "That shouldn't be overlooked. But they often point their finger at the borrower. They say the borrower claimed to make $100,000 a year as a hairstylist or something. But a lot of times the borrower didn't do that, the broker did that, over the phone. I think there's a myth that those `liar loans' were borrower liars--in many cases they were broker liars."

For his part, Koehler says he expects the market--in his neighborhood, at least--to come back soon. "It's in a lull right now," Koehler acknowledges in August. But with Hopkins' massive east-side biotech and neighborhood redevelopment project under way, he's anticipating more and more new residents in the area. "A lot of the people moving in are not from Baltimore," he notes. "And some of them want to rent before they buy." For all of these people--the doctors down to the janitors--$300,000 rowhouses are good value. "While that sounds like a lot of money, that's not a lot of money anymore for a house," Koehler says.

"It's still a good time to buy in this neighborhood," Koehler says. "It's only going to get better. I've already seen values start to climb again."

He's even got a few houses for sale.

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Room for Improvement (7/14/2010)
Celebrated crime control measure actually a flop, former chief reveals

Shelling Out (7/7/2010)
Mortgage broker goes bankrupt, seeks mortgage modification as taxpayers face mounting bailout bills

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