When Catalina Romero bought her Little Village home back in 1973 she thought she would live in it forever. “When we moved there my husband didn’t want to move,” she says. “He said it was too much money, and he didn’t like the house. I told him, ‘That’s all right. I can buy the house. I can put it in my name, and you can move in and pay rent.’ My daddy, he sent me a telegram with the money from Texas the next day.” She proudly unfolds the original bill of sale, which shows she paid $10,000 for the three-story brick house at 2844 W. 21st St.

Romero, who’s now 82, says she always had control of the family’s finances and kept its assets in her name, though she can neither read nor write. “I don’t like nobody to boss me around,” she says. That’s also why she stopped going to school in the second or third grade. “I was a bad girl, because I don’t like nobody telling me nothing. I fight with the teachers. The kids called me ‘cat eyes.’ I didn’t like school, so I stayed with my aunt.”

Romero’s family moved from Texas to Chicago in 1934, when she was 14. Eventually her parents went back, but she stayed, married, and had 15 children. She never worked, yet she bought and sold two houses before the one on 21st Street. Her husband died of a heart attack in 1978.

In 1986 she was living on the second floor of the house. A daughter and her children lived in one of the two apartments on the first floor, a son and his children in the other. A woman was renting the third-floor attic. That fall one of Romero’s grandsons stuck a fork in a light switch, causing a short in the wiring that ignited something in the attic. The woman who was renting the space had stored a container of gasoline in the hallway, and once the flames hit that, the roof went.

Romero was horrified by what she saw when she got back into the house. The walls on the top two floors were crumbling, and the roof was charred and open to the sky. The only space that was even close to habitable was one of the first-floor apartments. “The fire was just upstairs in the attic–not in the walls, but in the ceiling,” she complains. “When the fire department came, they just put water over everything. They broke the windows and just threw water. They didn’t have to do all that.”

Sixteen years later the house looks much as it did right after the fire. There are holes where there should be windowpanes. The stairways and floorboards on the second and third floors are rotting. The plaster on the interior walls is gone, and half-burned rafters are caving in.

Romero tried to get the house fixed, but she had little money and less luck. Finally, in 1999 she hired Atlas Custom Builders, paying the company $50,000. But she has little to show for it besides a loan she can’t pay off.

In the months before the fire Romero had got behind on paying her insurance bills, so she soon realized she would get no money for repairs from that source. And she had little money of her own, only a small settlement from her husband’s insurance policy. She moved in with a son’s mother-in-law, then tried to repair what she could. “I hired some guys to fix the roof for the first thing,” she says. “They put blue plastic on the top, because if it rained all the water came through–because the holes were so big in the roof. The guys who were fixing my house were Mexican, and my neighbors knew they didn’t have no papers, so they reported them. [Someone] came by and picked them up. They charged me $3,000, and they never did the work.”

A few months later she hired another crew. “They put a paper in the window saying they had a permit to fix the house,” she says. “Some inspector came over there and said, ‘Who put that paper in the window?’ He said, ‘Those guys bought it like they bought the papers to work here.’ So I lost them again. Two times I tried to fix it.”

For the next dozen years the house simply sat. Romero’s savings were gone, and she was living on social security. One of her daughters, Fay Romero, lived in the first-floor apartment. She wasn’t paying rent, but Romero figured her presence helped protect the property. “I’m afraid if no one lives there,” she explains, “maybe people will vandalize it and write on the walls or something.”

In the spring of 1999 another of Romero’s daughters, Lisa Rubio, saw an ad in the Sun-Times: “Ugly homes wanted for television commercials in this area. We need Ugly Homes with Ugly Kitchens, Bathrooms, inside or outside that need fixing or remodeling really bad! We will Repair and Remodel them and shoot video for training film or future TV commercial on Home Remodeling Work….Act now, Don’t delay! Atlas Custom Builders, Inc. Operators on Duty 24 Hrs. Daily and Sunday. Call Today! Free Call.”

Rubio says, “I called Atlas and said, ‘Can you help us–yes or no?’ They said yes.”

Atlas estimated that the most pressing repairs would cost $20,000. Romero said she didn’t have $20,000, and the Atlas representative told her she could get a loan. “I said ‘I can’t get a loan,'” she says. “He said, ‘Don’t worry. We do the job, and then we get you a loan so you can pay it all in cash.’ I was so happy I went and told the father and the nuns from my church.”

Romero, who was by then living with another of her daughters, figured that Atlas could quickly make some of the apartments livable, then she could rent them and use the money to make her loan payments. She says the Atlas representative assured her that wouldn’t be a problem.

Barry Siegal, who was a salesman with Atlas for almost five years, says most home-improvement customers are like Romero–they want to believe everything will work out perfectly, they want to hear that home repairs will be cheap, fast, and grandiose. “Trying to be straight and honest is the hardest road in the world to take,” he says. “People want to be lied to. They want to hear a lie, a story–paint them a picture.”

In July 1999 Romero signed a $20,000 contract that promised, among other things, that Atlas would sandblast and tuckpoint the brick and put on a new roof. A month later no work had been done, but an Atlas representative brought over a second contract, this one for $30,000 to do additional repairs, including installing seven new windows, putting up drywall, and replacing floors. By the end of September, Romero had signed four different contracts for varying sums. “I don’t know why they had me sign so many,” she says. “They would say they’re going to start next month, and they never started. They would just come over and have me sign another one. I don’t know nothing about all those contracts. I can’t read and write. I just sign my name.”

Some of the repairs promised in the additional contracts duplicated items listed in the first. Some were new, such as installing new windows, a wrought-iron gate, a steel security door, and an attic dormer. Rewiring and new plumbing were also promised. At the bottom of three of the contracts the salesman wrote, “All workmanship guaranteed!!”

In September a man Romero assumed was an Atlas representative brought loan papers to her home. The 30-year mortgage gave her $57,000, of which $50,000 was to go to Atlas, covering the first two contracts she’d signed. The remaining $7,000 would go to bank fees, bills (the mortgage lists debts of more than $4,300), and work permits. She was to make 179 payments of $462.74 and a final balloon payment of $45,870.48–even though the mortgage clearly lists her monthly income as $650 and her only source of income as social security. The interest rate on the loan was 9.71 percent, though at the time the average mortgage rate for a home owner with good credit was 7.57 percent. The house’s value was listed as $75,000.

Romero didn’t understand balloon payments, and she didn’t realize that the loan was actually from First Union Home Equity Bank, not Atlas. “They said they would lend me the money,” she says, “but I didn’t know it was a loan from someplace else.” And she didn’t know that meant she’d lost some of her leverage with Atlas.

In October the loan was approved, and an Atlas representative gave Romero three checks totaling almost $50,000. They should have been signed over to Atlas as work was completed, but Romero didn’t understand that either. “So me, dummy, I gave them all to him,” she says. “He took the checks, and from there I don’t know where that money go.” Now she had no leverage with Atlas.

Yet soon after that Atlas subcontractors started working on the house. They sandblasted the paint off the outside, installed drywall in a downstairs apartment, did some electrical work, and put on a new roof, though Fay Romero says it leaks. And then the work stopped. The only habitable apartment was still the one Fay was living in.

Romero made a few of the loan payments, then decided that given her medical expenses she couldn’t afford to make any more. First Union started sending her notices, and she called Atlas: “They said, ‘That’s not my problem.’ I said, ‘You said in two months you would finish the two apartments so I can live in one and rent one. But you don’t fix nothing and just keep the money.’ How do I argue with the company? I called them every two weeks. They said tomorrow, next day, or they’re sick. The car broke down. Something happened. Everything he put an excuse. Fay said they never came over there. They tried to tell me they were there. They would tell me to meet them there, so I’d be there–and they would never show up.” Romero says she asked the bookkeeper who answered her calls if she could speak with the owner, Martin Ross, but the woman said Ross wasn’t in or was out of town.

Eight months after Romero signed her first contract, Atlas sent Siegal to look at the property to see how much could be done with what was left of the $50,000. “I went out there and saw a total mess,” he says. “[Ross] said he didn’t want to spend more than $10,000 or $15,000 on it–that was all he had left for the project. He didn’t have enough money for the job–but he got paid for the whole job. It wasn’t but a third done.” Siegal drew up a fifth contract, but no more work was ever done on the house.

Siegal says that in the time he worked for Atlas, Ross never set out not to do work he was contracted for. “In the beginning he had plenty of money coming in and plenty of money going out,” he says. “Towards the end there were problems.”

Siegal has his own reason to be bitter about Ross. “When I worked for him he was paying my health insurance, and then all of a sudden, out of nowhere, he drops the health insurance and didn’t tell anybody–and only for us, not for him,” he says. “Of course Marty kept his own. Marty will always look out for Marty.” Siegal says that at the time, in the late summer of 2000, he had cancer, and it took him eight months to find insurance. “I got stuck with a bunch of nice bills too.”

Most of the work Atlas drew up contracts for was actually done by subcontractors. In 1999, according to a city Department of Revenue document, the company, which had at least four different addresses and phone numbers, listed telemarketing as its principal business. A 1998 audit by the Travelers Indemnity insurance company recorded 41 Atlas employees: 27 telemarketers, 11 salespeople, a site supervisor, a bookkeeper, and Martin Ross as president and salesman.

“He’s not selling the remodeling job,” says Siegal. “He’s selling the financing. He could get them the financing where other people couldn’t. If he could finance the guy who’s the hardest to finance, then you make the most money–because you charge the guy appropriately.”

Documents filed with the Cook County Recorder of Deeds show that between 1995 and 2000 Atlas financed at least 394 home-owner loans and later sold them, usually to subprime lenders–companies that generally lend to people with poor credit ratings and therefore charge higher fees and interest rates. Ross also owned four other construction companies during that period–First Churchill Builders, Brightland Builders, Remodeler’s Plus, and United Remodeler’s–and county records show that those businesses helped finance hundreds more customer loans. Of these loans, 256 were sold to the Money Store, which is now defunct. The Money Store, says Mike Shea, executive director of ACORN, was “one of the early predators out there. They were typically hooked up with an unscrupulous real estate agent or an unscrupulous home-repair company.” And that kind of company, says Siegal, was often “looking for people who are not too swift in their minds. Some poor, uneducated, usually black or Latino person.”

In 1999, the year Romero signed her first contracts with Atlas, the National Association of Consumer Agency Administrators’s Web site listed home-repair companies around the country that had drawn the worst customer complaints that year, and Atlas was among them. “The company disappeared without paying two contractors and failed to complete work on three homes,” said the Web page. “The monetary losses are estimated at $20,000, including incomplete work for the three consumers and non-payment to employees.”

Chicago’s Department of Consumer Services had logged 15 complaints against Atlas as of last summer. “They are similar scenarios,” said Connie Buscemi, a department spokeswoman. “They are contracted to do work for tens of thousands of dollars, they arrange the financing, and then the work is either not completed or the work that is done usually has something wrong with it. This company has a track record of not doing what they should be doing and only doing what they should do when they are forced to.”

Bernice Faulkner sued Atlas in 2000, claiming that the company never completed work it had promised to do on her south-side home and that some of the work it had done was substandard. Unable to afford a lawyer, she represented herself in court, and when no one from the company showed up she won $10,000 plus court costs. But she never collected any of the money. Ironically, while she was suing Atlas the company’s telemarketers called one evening wanting to know if she was interested in having any repairs done on her home.

In April 1999 Cris and Reynaldo Guerrero wanted to remodel their bathroom and build an addition on their Park Ridge home. They shopped around for quotes, then chose Atlas. The company estimated the job at $50,000, and the Guerreros took out a $20,000 loan and turned the money over to Atlas as a down payment. Cris says Atlas representatives kept putting off the work, saying they were changing subcontractors or some aspect of the building plans: “They would send someone over to just look at it. They never came in here with a hammer, nothing.”

She says by fall no work had been done and Atlas offered to return half of the $20,000. “We said, ‘Why half? You didn’t do a thing,'” she says. “I can’t believe it. They just can’t take the money and run–and then have the gall to offer us half back. How can they get away with such things?”

The Guerreros hired a lawyer and filed a lawsuit. The case went to trial on May 15, 2000. Again, no one from Atlas showed up in court, and the Guerreros won their $20,000 and court costs. Afterward their lawyer talked to Martin Ross’s lawyer, Daniel Robin, who said that his client was suffering from cancer and that Atlas had no money. (Ross didn’t respond to numerous requests to be interviewed for this story; Robin said Ross had cancer and was undergoing dialysis for renal failure. “Mr. Ross is too ill to be concerned with this matter,” he said. “His biggest concern is to stay alive.”)

“I should have taken the half,” says Cris Guerrero. Instead she and her husband are chipping away at their $20,000 loan. “We have this construction loan,” she says. “But there is no work done on the house–and we’re paying interest for it.”

It’s not just customers who’ve sued Atlas. ABC Remodeler’s Supply, a materials company, filed suit in June 2000, claiming it was owed $20,512. The owner, Robert Popowski, says he never got any of the money. “It happens,” he says. “That’s how it is in this business, especially with operations like [Ross’s]. There are many, many, many out there like them. There’s not much you can do about it. Every company that issues credit will lose money somewhere.”

And it wasn’t just Atlas that had problems. Since 1995 consumers have filed 62 complaints against Ross’s five home-repair companies with the Illinois attorney general’s office. The Better Business Bureau of Chicago and Northern Illinois has logged 41 complaints. Tom Joyce, public affairs director for the bureau, says, “Against a single builder that is quite a few complaints.”

There have also been 53 lawsuits against the companies. Alfred Buchanan wrote Brightland Builders a check for $4,185 as a down payment on a job, but canceled the contract within three days, as allowed by law. Brightland didn’t return the down payment, and Buchanan sued. In April 2000 a judge ruled that Brightland’s bank account at Cole Taylor Bank could be garnished. But before Buchanan’s lawyer, Lee Pulliam, could get the money a woman from the bank’s legal department called. “She said, ‘I know we’ve got a garnishment order, but I’ve been informed by Brightland Builders that you and they have resolved the issue and we’re free to turn over the funds to them,'” says Pulliam. “The bank called me to verify that, and it wasn’t true. We only got half the amount owed to Buchanan–there was only $2,205.34 in the account.”

According to state records, in 1996 First Churchill Builders went bankrupt. In December 2000 three of the remaining four companies closed–Remodeler’s Plus, Brightland, and Atlas.

Three months after Atlas closed, First Union started foreclosure proceedings against Catalina Romero. She complained about her situation to the consumer fraud division of the Cook County state’s attorney’s office but was told the office didn’t handle private disputes.

She probably would have got a similar answer if she’d gone to the Illinois attorney general’s office, which in the past five years has logged more complaints about home repair than anything else. After hearing about Romero’s case, deputy press secretary Lori Bolas said the attorney general’s office sometimes mediates complaints, then acknowledged that mediation requires the voluntary cooperation of both parties. “If we are able to establish a pattern of deceptive practices it is possible that we would file litigation against a defendant–and we do in dozens of cases every year,” she went on, but then said, “This is not the most egregious case that we see. Our attorneys work diligently every year on cases which show a clear pattern of deception–and where we are able to gather the evidence we need to prove our case in court.”

Last August, Romero finally got a lawyer, Bill Spielberger, a private attorney who agreed to defend her pro bono against First Union. He already had two other clients who’d got home-improvement loans through one of Ross’s companies but few improvements; one of the clients had already lost his home to foreclosure.

Spielberger would like to file a lawsuit against Ross but can’t see a way to do it. “People set up corporations so they won’t be sued individually,” he says, noting that Romero’s contracts were with Atlas, not Ross. And he’d like to file a class-action suit against First Union, though he hasn’t yet. He says he would try to show that the bank had engaged in predatory lending: “The way the system is set up is that it is very difficult for people who have a less-than-sophisticated understanding of home improvement and home-improvement loans to be able to understand what they are entering into and to protect themselves from potential fraud. Catalina signed all those checks over to Atlas without even knowing it.” He says that lawyers from the banks would undoubtedly point out that all of his clients voluntarily signed the papers for their loans and ought to face that reality. “Sometimes I think, do these Harvard Law graduates sitting in the corner really see what’s happened to these people? I think sometimes you have to go to Harvard Law not to see that. What rational person would knowingly sign something that would cause them to lose everything they had? Who is more removed from reality when you are looking at these situations? The way I look at this is, who really gained from all this? Catalina didn’t. She didn’t get anything.”

She isn’t likely to either. Not only is she facing foreclosure, but last December a city inspector noticed the dilapidated condition of her house. Romero wound up in court, where the judge told her she had to board up the house and get her daughter to move out or the city would demolish the building.

Romero says she can’t afford to board up the broken windows, and though she discussed moving out with Fay once, she doesn’t have the heart to do it again. “How can I tell Fay to move out?” she says. “I can’t do it. She says she can’t afford rent. She has nowhere to go.”

So now Romero is just waiting. “All I want is to move back into my house–that is all I ever wanted,” she says, her eyes filling with tears. “I was so happy when we found Atlas. I thought that they would put in three apartments, and I was going to move back in. But I’m still here living with my daughter. I can’t stay here all the time. I don’t pay no rent here. It is too much for my daughter. She could get rent. I just want to move to my house.”

Teresa Yuan helped with the research for this article.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Nathan Mandell.