On July 26th, 2019, SoC Professor, Jeff Kelly Lowenstein, received the Lillie Pearl Williams award for his reporting in the fight against Reverse Mortgage Fraud. The award was given by a Chicago-area anti-violence group called “Mothers Opposed to Violence Everywhere” (M.O.V.E.) and it was chosen by youth with whom M.O.V.E. works. The award is in honor of the life and memory of Lillie Pearl Williams. She was the first person with whom Mr. Lowenstein spoke for the initial reverse mortgage story he did in January 2015.
Like many Chicagoans on the West Side, Ms. Williams came north from Mississippi in search of opportunity and a better life. She bought her home in the city’s North Lawndale neighborhood with her sister in the 70s. They owned it outright for decades before reverse mortgage scam artist Mark Diamond took nearly all of the $120,000 — the amount she recalls receiving from the house — for repair work on the first and second floors, leaving her with about $1,000. When Mr. Lowenstein and Ms. Williams first met, she was in danger of losing the home because she had fallen about $6,000 behind in taxes and insurance.
After the article was published, Diamond’s lawyer, Dennis Both, offered Ms. Williams the opportunity to have her debt cleared and her home released from the possibility of foreclosure in exchange for not speaking up further about the issue. She refused to do so because she wanted to help others avoid the same predicament she had faced.
Ms. Williams’s courage and strength in sharing what had happened to her and her refusal to be silent were part of a process that led to the arrest and later conviction of Diamond and some of his associates, the passage of statewide legislation, and more than 120 families who had been in danger of being foreclosed on being able to stay in their homes. Lowenstein’s brother Jon captured those qualities in the picture of her that is on the plaque. The youth who selected it saw about half a dozen pictures of her and all chose Jon’s picture.
Professor Lowenstein returned to Chicago over Labor Day, where the youth performed a skit that conveyed their expression of what reverse mortgages have meant to them, their families, and their community.
In a letter to SoC faculty, Lowenstein thanked his colleagues for their hard work and support, saying that “Although the plaque has my name on it, we are all part of it.”