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Luisa Telefoni and her son, Jorge. (KUOW Photo: Liz Jones)

Luisa Telefoni and her son, Jorge. (KUOW Photo: Liz Jones)

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Tongan Family And Neighbors Band Together Against Foreclosure

Liz Jones

The Kingdom of Tonga is a tiny island nation in the South Pacific. People there have a saying: "In Tonga, no one is homeless and no one goes hungry." A Tongan woman in South Seattle says her home here is no different. She's currently taken in about six families who are struggling to make ends meet. She says that's the Tongan custom. But now she's confronting the American custom when bills go unpaid — home foreclosure. KUOW's Liz Jones has our story.


Luisa Telefoni lives in a plain, split–level house on a dead–end street in South Seattle. The sprawling lawn is yellow, but neatly trimmed. Inside, it's tidy and unassuming.

You'd never guess Luisa is related to a King.

Telefoni: "His name now is King Tupou the 6th. He's now married to my cousin, who is the queen."

Before he was king, he visited her family here in this home.

Telefoni: "Sitting in the couch, right here on the couch."

Despite that family connection, Luisa does not live like royalty here in Seattle — far from it. She's been fighting a home foreclosure for about seven years.

Luisa moved into this home soon after she arrived from Tonga, 35 years ago. She raised four boys in this three–bedroom house. And she doesn't want to give it up because a lot of people depend on this place.

Telefoni: "I have my brother and his wife downstairs. I have my nephew and his wife and the kids downstairs. Actually, I have my son — "

Luisa's ever–present smile seems to grow wider as she keeps counting.

Telefoni: " — my brother–in–law and wife and child are over there."

In all, about six families currently live here. They're all related to Luisa. Some have lost their homes or jobs and came here as they try to get back on their feet. The family jokingly calls it 'camp' and it's not just for relatives.

Through the years, Luisa's routinely opened this home to people in need: college students, family friends, homeless kids. That's a custom she brought with her from Tonga.

Telefoni: "Uh, I don't think there's homeless in Tonga because it seems like everybody has a place to live. And if you don't have a home, your neighbor will open their house for you. That's how we live. We have open houses for everybody."

Sound: Barbecue party

Evan Safiu: "They took me in as one of their own and uh, yeah, I ended up living here all throughout my high–school years."

That's Evan Safiu. He showed up for a recent barbecue at Luisa's house.

Safiu: "Yeah, I don't think I have graduated without living here, without being able to have a stable home to stay at. They fed me, they clothed me. I was like one of them. And I barely knew them, you know. Good people."

Liz Jones: "When you lived here, what was your bedroom situation like?"

Safiu: "Oh man, I was everywhere. Everybody shared. It was like, there was no time for anybody to have their own room over here. There were always so many people in this house, you know."

Barbara Burns McGrath: "In Tonga, that communal aspect, it feels very different from our 'pull yourself up by your bootstraps' kind of mentality."

Barbara Burns McGrath is a medical anthropologist at the University of Washington. She's lived and worked in Tonga, which is also known as the "Friendly Islands."

She's hardly surprised to hear about Luisa's overflowing home.

Burns McGrath: "There's a number of key cultural values and one of those is a sense of obligation and love that you extend to the people around you. So it's very important to be a part of a family and take care of your family members at the expense of maybe some of your own self–achievement."

And that's why Luisa says it's so vital for her to hang on to her home; this is her way to take care of her family.

Telefoni: "There's another bathroom here."

Back in Luisa's living room, the walls are bare except for two large portraits — one of her mom and one of her dad.

She says her family has pulled together to try to save her house, but the foreclosure is still underway.

Jones: "How long has this been going on? When did it become difficult to keep up with the house payments?"

Telefoni: "That was in 19–, 2005. That's when my ex–husband decided to file for divorce."

Her husband left, along with his income from a military pension. Luisa had given up her job in customer service a few years ago to care for her dying parents.

After the divorce, Luisa says she discovered her family finances were a mess. She thought they were close to paying off the mortgage after nearly 30 years. But she says her ex–husband had taken out a second mortgage, and that he ran up other large debts.

In this current housing market, she now owes more on the house than it's worth.

Telefoni: "To us, it's like a shameful thing that I cannot afford my bills; that I cannot pay my house payment and stuff like that. I tried everything."

She tried to refinance but was told her credit was too bad. She worked with attorneys and real estate agents to try to short–sell her home. As a last ditch effort, she filed for bankruptcy to delay the foreclosure.

Telefoni: "So that's how the house got saved the first time."

Her son, Jorge, had left college and eventually got a job at Boeing to help pay the bills. Recently, he suggested they just walk away from the house. And they were about to give up.

Then, they got a knock on the door.

Steven Price: "My name is Steven Price and I've been involved with SAFE from the beginning."

Price helped form a neighborhood group called SAFE in Seattle.

Price: "We started to — with a bunch of other people — explore ways to help families stay in their homes."

And they're hoping Luisa's home will be their first success story. SAFE's only been around a few months, but they're modeled after a long–running organization in the Boston area called City Life/Vida Urbana.

They try to help people in foreclosure work out a new deal with lenders, like for the homeowner to buy back the house at its current value.

If that fails, they take more extreme measures. They'll picket the bank and create human blockades against evictions.

Price: "They stand — and this is what we'll do — we'll stand in a blockade to prevent the county sheriff from coming in and throwing these people's furniture on the street."

Jones: "And that's actually kept people in their homes in the Boston area?"

Price: "It's kept people in their homes in the Boston area, yes."

Price says other avenues for Luisa are to see if the bank will lower her payments or let her pay rent.

Sound: Barbeque party

SAFE also organized this recent barbecue and block party at Luisa's house. Her family cooked up a huge feast.

Telefoni: "Yeah, we roast a pig, but we do it in our culture — we cook it under the ground. We call it 'umu.'"

SAFE wants to get more neighbors involved. They're hoping that a show of community support will make the bank more receptive to work with Luisa.

Some curious neighbors stop by. They all seem supportive, even though they don't really know Luisa's family.

As people eat, Luisa timidly steps in front of the crowd.

Telefoni: "So, I'd like to thank you all so very much for being here with us. For those that need help in the future, we are all going to stand and help all of you."

Luisa darts around the patio, making sure everyone gets enough to eat. She says this party, and working with SAFE, gives her a boost of courage to press on with the bank.

History shows Tongans are fighters, warriors. It's the only kingdom in the South Pacific that was never formally colonized. So it seems this mission, to save her family home, is in Luisa's blood.

I'm Liz Jones, KUOW News.

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