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Bronzeville, Near South Side

What’s Gone Wrong At Chicago’s Last Black-Owned Bank?

Despite government intervention and new owners, GN Bank fights for survival while customers worry about losing their homes.

GN Bank at 47th and Martin Luther King Drive in Chicago on Nov. 12, 2021.
Danielle Scruggs, special to ProPublica

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CHICAGO — The bank’s board meeting on April 28, 2016, started with a prayer. Then it turned to plans for keeping the bank alive.

That week, federal regulators had signed off on a deal allowing new owners to take control of Illinois Service Federal Savings and Loan, one of the last Black-owned banks in the country. For more than a year, regulators had warned the bank could be shut down if it didn’t raise capital. They had also ordered it to improve its management.

Papa Kwesi Nduom offered an infusion of money and a fresh face. An entrepreneur from Ghana, Nduom led a successful business empire that included hotels and a large banking chain in West Africa. He had been looking for an opportunity to invest in Black-owned banks in the United States when he heard about ISF and agreed to put $9 million into it. To make the deal work, ISF would be restructured so that Nduom, his wife, Yvonne, and four of their adult children controlled all of its stock.

Longtime bank leaders saw no other way to keep the 82-year-old institution open. The deal would also ensure that the bank remained Black-owned.

As he led the April 2016 board meeting, Nduom emphasized his intention to bring the bank back to full health. One of his top priorities, he said, would be talking with federal regulators about lifting their order restricting the bank’s activities.

It hasn’t turned out that way. Five years later, the historic institution — renamed GN Bank — remains deeply troubled. Under the Nduoms, the bank has closed one of its two locations, cut staff, alienated many longtime customers and effectively stopped making new home loans, though that’s one of the central reasons for its existence. In 2020, the bank was again put under restrictions after regulators found “new violations of law, rule or regulation.”

Yet the Nduoms aren’t solely responsible for GN’s struggles. Regulators have failed to carry out a federal mandate to “preserve and promote” Black-owned banks, a ProPublica investigation has found.

Leading up to the Nduoms’ acquisition, the federal Office of the Comptroller of the Currency ordered the bank to reduce the risk in its loans, which led to less revenue. Then, the agency signed off on the new owners, even though they lacked banking experience in the United States and had investments abroad that posed known regulatory risks. Since then, the bank has been under close watch, yet the Nduoms have made a series of decisions that diminished the bank’s profile and quality of service.

GN Bank has fallen on hard times amid a nationwide decline in Black-owned banks. In 2001, 41 Black-owned banks were open in the United States, according to federal data. By this June, just 17 remained. In most cases, struggling banks shut down or were acquired even after federal regulators stepped in to order changes, as they’ve done with GN.

The OCC, for example, intervened multiple times over 10 years to turn around City National Bank of New Jersey; it was closed in 2019. First State Bank of Danville, Virginia, ceased to be a Black-owned bank in 2017, when it was bought by a white owner while under consent order with the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. And the Community Bank of Lawndale on Chicago’s West Side was unable to stay afloat after it was acquired by a suburban pastor and members of his congregation, who pooled money to try to save the institution.

Regulators “seem to have abdicated their responsibility to look out for the public interest,” said William Michael Cunningham, an economist and the founder of Creative Investment Research, a firm that focuses on financial products that promote social good. “They’re not following the law.”

GN Bank’s difficulties are also part of a larger story about racism and economic disparities. For decades, white-owned banks largely refused to do business in Black communities, and even when they did, they often loaned at higher interest rates or with predatory conditions. National banks and mortgage companies still issue loans in Black Chicago neighborhoods at a fraction of the level they do in white areas.

Black-owned banks have long been viewed as a critical solution to those problems, receiving renewed attention after the 2020 murder of George Floyd led to protests and a national conversation about racial injustice. But because they tend to serve communities with fewer resources, many Black-owned banks have trouble staying open. Experts say they can’t be expected to reverse generations of economic segregation on their own.

“It’s a Catch-22: You are struggling with the same forces of poverty, segregation and lack of capital that your bank is intended to remedy,” said Mehrsa Baradaran, a professor at the University of California, Irvine, law school and author of “The Color of Money: Black Banks and the Racial Wealth Gap.” “And that’s why you see so few of them.”

In a statement provided through a lawyer, Nduom did not respond to questions about customer complaints. But he said his efforts and the work of the bank’s board “are allowing the bank to thrive and are bearing fruit for the community. Our work is not completed but we have made great strides and continue to do so.”

“The bank has been and is diligently working to place itself on solid financial footing and we are working with regulators to do that,” the statement said.

A spokesperson for the OCC, the federal agency that approved the sale, declined to discuss GN Bank, saying it “does not comment on specific banks or supervisory activities.” In a written statement, the spokesperson said the OCC carries out its mandate to preserve minority-owned banks by offering training and support through an outreach office and an advisory committee of bank leaders.

“The OCC recognizes the vital role that minority depository institutions (MDIs) play in promoting the economic viability of the communities they serve and has several programs and initiatives in place to support the creation and preservation of these institutions,” the statement added.

Josephine Wade-Smith’s worries about GN Bank started one afternoon in late 2018, when she found several copies of a letter taped to the front door of her Chicago home. It stated that the bank had sold her mortgage to a company she had never heard of. And it said that the account was past due.

It was the first time Wade had heard that she could be behind on her mortgage, she said, though she usually paid at the bank in person each month. And she didn’t understand why anyone would post personal financial information on her door.

“The mailman saw it,” she said. “Everyone saw it.”

Credit: Danielle Scruggs, special to ProPublica
Josephine “Mother Wade” Wade-Smith photographed at her home in Chicago, IL on October 21, 2021.

Known as Mother Wade to friends and everyone else with a passing acquaintance, she is warm, savvy and sometimes blunt; a longtime acquaintance describes her as “straight, no chaser.” For almost 40 years, her restaurants have anchored a stretch of East 79th Street that the city has marked as honorary Mother Josephine Wade Way. She counts aldermen, members of Congress and mayors as friends and allies.

Wade, 78, had been a customer of the South Side bank and had known its leaders for decades. Banking with Black-owned institutions had always been important to her. “If we go outside of our banks and take everything away from our community, then our community is not strong enough to make loans and risk loans,” she said.

But in the three years since she found the letter on her door, her trust in GN Bank has been shattered. After getting the letter, a man showed up at her home and told her it was going into foreclosure. For a while, bank employees said they would only accept cash, she said, but she continued to make payments in person at the bank until they stopped giving her receipts more than a year ago. In April, Nduom texted her that he was trying to get her mortgage “regularized,” according to messages she shared with ProPublica. The texts confused her even more.

Now she worries that somehow the bank will take her home.

“I haven’t been sleeping. I can’t eat,” Wade said. “When you get old and you’ve worked hard and you’re worried about not having a place to stay — this is stressful.”

A Modest Beginning

In 1934, 13 Black leaders on the South Side pooled together $7,000 to launch Illinois Federal Savings and Loan. Their mission: to help people buy homes in parts of the city where white-owned banks wouldn’t lend. One member of the group was Robert Taylor, a property manager who later became chairman of the Chicago Housing Authority. Among the other bank founders were a doctor, an attorney, a minister and an insurance executive, A.W. Williams, who would end up serving as president and board chairman over the course of his 35 years with the institution.

“He was not the kind of person who believed that one pulled oneself up by one’s own bootstraps,” said Williams’ son Norman. “He believed that we’re all connected.”

Norman Williams joined the bank’s board in 1976, as his father was preparing to step away. He ended up staying for 40 years, the last 19 years as board chairman and 13 years as bank CEO. Now 69, Williams serves as president of Unity Funeral Parlors, another family business launched by his father that became a South Side institution.

Credit: Danielle Scruggs, special to ProPublica
Norman Williams’ father, A.W. Williams, was one of the founders of Illinois Federal Savings and Loan, which became GN Bank. The younger Williams joined the bank’s board in 1976 and ended up staying for 40 years.

The bank, Williams said, tended to have two types of customers. Some had the means to bank anywhere but wanted their money reinvested in the Black community. Others didn’t have other options. Both groups appreciated that the bank was small and accessible.

“They were more comfortable going somewhere where people knew their names and knew their history,” Williams said. “Some people even had their favorite tellers. Those relationships were important to people in the community.”

In 1976, as many small banks tried to stay solvent, Illinois Federal merged with another Black-owned savings and loan and changed its name to Illinois Service Federal. Six years later, ISF took over the assets of a second Black-owned savings and loan that was closing.

From its small initial investment, Illinois Service Federal grew to have more than $104 million in assets by 1992. In spite of that growth, it remained a small institution and struggled to compete with larger banks and lending companies that had started to do business in its neighborhoods.

That wasn’t unusual. Even when the economy is thriving, the profit margins of Black-owned banks tend to be smaller and their risk tends to be higher, Baradaran said, because they serve communities with historically lower levels of wealth and housing stability.

For generations, prominent leaders have promoted Black-owned banks as a response to racism in the American economy but found the businesses difficult to sustain. As Baradaran documented in her book, abolitionist Frederick Douglass served as president of a bank in 1874, after white managers squandered its funds, while groundbreaking baseball star Jackie Robinson helped start one in 1964. Both institutions were eventually shuttered.

The 2008 housing collapse, fueled in part by subprime lending, devastated many low-income and working-class communities, including the financial institutions tied to them. During the recession that followed, many of the neighborhoods served by ISF experienced dramatic drops in property values. Many community and Black-owned banks ended up with mounting numbers of delinquent loans and foreclosed properties.

A wave of foreclosures followed, driving down property values even more. “It was a disaster that kept feeding itself,” Williams said.

By 2013, as loan delinquencies continued to mount, federal regulators concluded that ISF was engaged in “unsafe or unsound banking practices,” standard language officials use when warning that a bank is veering into trouble. The OCC reached an agreement with ISF requiring the bank to ensure it had adequate capital and develop a plan for its delinquent loans.

The bank was already doing less business in the wake of the recession, but its lending dropped further after the agreement: It made 32 loans in 2012, federal data shows, but just 17 in 2013 and nine in 2014. As the bank’s income dropped, its capital shrank further. ISF was in worse shape in spite of the government’s intervention.

The chain of events illustrates the competing responsibilities of federal regulators. Although the OCC and other agencies have a mandate to support minority-owned banks, their top priority is to protect the interests of depositors and the financial system when an institution gets into trouble.

“In the best cases, you will have a collaborative environment where the bank supervisors and owners come together,” said Jeremy Kress, an assistant professor at the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business who has studied bank regulation. “But there’s always a tension.”

The regulatory process also wasn’t designed to save every bank but to “minimize losses” if the federal government has to cover insured deposits in the event of a failure, said Kress, who formerly worked as an attorney for the Federal Reserve Board. In some cases, regulators simply set the bank “on a kind of glide path” as it goes down.

The OCC says that it offers training and stays in touch with the leaders of minority-owned banks through an advisory committee and its External Outreach and Minority Affairs office. According to an agency spokesperson, the office has “several” full-time employees and manages initiatives such as a program to partner minority-owned banks with larger corporate institutions “to access capital, expand technology capabilities, and modernize infrastructure.”

ISF wasn’t the only small bank subjected to enforcement actions after the recession. Federal regulators entered into consent orders or agreements with hundreds of community banks across the country from 2008 through 2013, according to a ProPublica analysis of federal data. That included five Black-owned banks overseen by the OCC.

But only one of the five eventually managed to satisfy the terms of the agreements and remains open. The rest either failed, were acquired by other banks or are still under close supervision today.

By 2015, ISF was still operating, but it was in grave shape.

Change in Control

In April 2015, regulators took a stronger enforcement step, ordering ISF to address its low level of capital and improve its policies for evaluating and managing loans. In boilerplate regulatory language, the OCC also directed the bank to “hire and ensure competent management.” It gave ISF 30 days to begin implementing reforms.

Williams concluded that his “only option” was to search for new investors or owners.

As Williams tried to line up partners who embraced the bank’s mission, a business contact introduced him to Nduom, who had been looking into the possibility of acquiring a Black-owned bank in the U.S.

“Providing banking services to marginalized and underprivileged black communities has been an interest of mine for some time,” Nduom said in his written statement to ProPublica.

When they found out about ISF, Williams said, “the Nduoms saw this as their anchor in the United States, and they made a full-court appeal to be the sole investor.”

Previously, the bank had been organized so that it was owned mutually by anyone with a deposit account. But in November 2015, the Nduoms — Papa Kwesi, Yvonne and four of their adult children — filed paperwork with the OCC seeking approval to purchase all of the ownership shares in the bank, according to OCC correspondence.

Under federal law, bank officials are required to give government regulators a 60-day notice before a “change in control.” The regulators are then responsible for investigating and producing an internal report on the “competence, experience, integrity, and financial ability” of each new owner.

But the OCC rarely blocks changes in control, agency figures show. From 2016 through 2020, the agency acted on 42 change in control applications nationwide and decided to sign off on all of them. Four other applications were withdrawn.

Still, the OCC attached several conditions to the Nduoms’s takeover, spelled out in a letter on April 25, 2016. It noted that the OCC had not yet received “certain background checks” conducted for the agency by third parties, and it reserved the right to step in later “if adverse or previously withheld information is received.”

It is not unusual for the agency to greenlight a change in control pending a background check or other conditions. That may include questions about “parallel banking,” or the simultaneous ownership of a separate bank in another country, which regulators have long known is risky. Since the Nduoms also owned a bank in Ghana, they were required to share records with the OCC, provide a list of their affiliates and related interests, and spell out any potential conflicts between banking regulations in Ghana and the U.S. The OCC also reminded them the 2015 consent order was still in effect.

Officials with the OCC said they cannot share copies of the investigation reports the agency produced when the Nduoms wanted to take control of ISF. The records, they said, only exist on paper and cannot be retrieved from storage because of COVID-19 restrictions at the National Archives.

Williams agreed to leave the bank as part of the change in control. He said he doesn’t know how deeply the OCC researched the Nduoms’ business dealings, but he believes regulators must have been reassured by the family’s promise to retain veteran staff and board members who had decades of institutional knowledge. Otherwise, he concluded, the OCC “would not have approved it, because the Nduoms had no experience in banking in this country.”

A Foothold in the U.S.

The morning after the takeover was approved in April 2016, Papa Kwesi Nduom told a TV reporter in Ghana that U.S. regulators had carefully reviewed his family’s background and finances. “We feel exceptionally proud and lucky and blessed that we are able to pass this scrutiny,” he said, speaking from Chicago via Skype.

Nduom sounded calm and thoughtful, his horn-rimmed glasses slightly crooked on his face, wearing no jacket or tie, his collared white shirt unbuttoned at the neck. He and his family were able to acquire the bank, he said, because “we have always preached discipline, doing the right things, paying our taxes, meeting the requirements of the regulator.”

Over the following months, speaking to Chicago media, the Nduom family made an effort to show that they understood ISF’s history of serving communities with limited access to banks. Nduom emphasized that the bank offered a personal touch that was missing at corporate giants like JPMorgan Chase. He would note, “You don’t know what Mr. Chase looks like, but now you know Mr. Nduom.”

Nduom was experienced at telling his story and touting his plans after 25 years as a business and political leader in Ghana.

According to the narrative he shared with interviewers, Nduom was born in 1953 and grew up in Elmina, which he described as a “fishing town” on Ghana’s southern coast. As a teenager, Nduom attended a year of high school in Cokato, Minnesota, about an hour west of Minneapolis. Afterward, Nduom said, “I caught the U.S. bug.”

Nduom returned to the United States for college, starting at a technical school before getting admitted to the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. He said he worked jobs at a meat processing plant, a cannery, an insurance firm and the Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District as he studied, eventually earning a Ph.D. in Urban Social Institutions.

In 1981 Nduom was hired as an associate consultant in the Milwaukee office of Touche & Ross, which later became Deloitte, the international accounting and consulting firm. He became a partner in 1985.

But “I always wanted to go back to Ghana,” Nduom said. He returned with his family in 1991.

Over the next three decades, the Nduoms launched a series of their own businesses at an astonishing pace. After receiving poor service at a hotel, they opened their own in 1994 — the first in what would be a chain overseen by Yvonne Nduom. They also founded Groupe Nduom, which spawned more than 40 separate entities in Africa and the United Kingdom, including TV channels and a professional soccer club, the Elmina Sharks. The business group eventually had more than 3,000 employees, the Nduoms told reporters.

The Nduoms also formed an investment firm. And in 2006, Groupe Nduom’s first bank opened in a renovated building that was once part of Shell Oil’s district office, according to Nduom. Within a decade the bank had more than 170 branches across Ghana.

But there was a cost to doing business in Ghana, Nduom said: “The government can be fickle.” He concluded that if he wanted anything to change, he would have to become a politician himself. In 2001, he joined the national government, first as the minister of economic planning and regional cooperation and later as the minister of energy. After a stint in Parliament, Nduom ran for president in the 2008 election. Though he promised to fight corruption and obstacles for business, he received less than 2% of the vote. He ran twice more, in 2012 and 2016, but fared no better.

At that time, the Nduoms’ business empire had no visible presence in the United States. That changed with the purchase of the bank.

Growing Signs of Trouble

Though he installed some supervisors with banking experience, Nduom made it clear that he and his family were in charge of the bank. He became chairman while his wife, Yvonne, joined the board of directors and led a personnel committee. Their sons Kweku and Chiefy became advisory directors and weighed in on many day-to-day decisions at the bank, including loan practices, a former employee said.

Initially the bank’s financial books improved, according to reports filed with federal regulators. The Nduoms’ investment raised the bank’s capital. Its total assets grew again. And the bank was weighed down by fewer delinquent loans.

In 2018, the Nduoms rebranded the bank, changing its name to GN Bank after Groupe Nduom, the name of their business conglomerate in Ghana. Some longtime customers and bank employees thought that was a mistake, since the old name was so well known on the South Side.

The bank still faced challenges. Staff turnover accelerated, especially in management positions, and the number of full-time employees started to drop. Customers said they had a hard time reaching anyone at the bank by phone, and tellers often were unable to provide information about their accounts.

And the bank remained under an OCC consent order, which complicated its efforts to make loans and raise revenues.

Credit: Danielle Scruggs, special to ProPublica
GN Bank at 47th and Martin Luther King Drive in Chicago.

At the same time, federal regulators were under pressure to help keep the bank open. In 2017, federal and state officials had shut down Seaway Bank and Trust, a once-thriving South Side institution. A federal inspector general’s report concluded that regulators with the FDIC should have kept a closer watch on Seaway.

In 2018, the Nduoms launched a complicated plan to move foreclosed properties and troubled loans off its books. That year, registration paperwork for a new company called Yorke Properties Illinois LLC was filed with the state. Nduom was listed as one of the new company’s managers. The address was recorded as 4619 S. King Drive in Chicago — the bank’s office.

Over the next year and a half, the bank sold at least 26 properties to Yorke Properties Illinois LLC, according to transactions recorded with Cook County. The LLC then borrowed at least $2 million from a California lender and started rehabbing the properties in order to sell or rent them.

GN Bank also assigned at least 16 active mortgages to Yorke Properties, effectively giving the company the right to collect payments and foreclose on the loans. In turn, Yorke used those mortgages as collateral when it borrowed from the California lender.

One of the collateral mortgages was for Emily Pierce’s condominium unit in Chicago’s South Shore neighborhood, just a couple blocks from Lake Michigan. She bought the unit in 2010, but the monthly condo assessments ended up being more than she could afford on her salary as a juvenile probation officer. Pierce said she spoke with loan officers at the bank who were willing to work with her. But they left after the bank changed hands, and the mortgage was never restructured.

Credit: Danielle Scruggs, special to ProPublica
Emily Pierce. In 2010, she took out a mortgage from Illinois Service Federal Savings and Loan.

In 2019, the bank sold the mortgage on Pierce’s condo to Yorke Properties, records show. Then, last year, Yorke moved to foreclose on her condo. Pierce said she never reached anyone by phone who could help her. She then drove to the south suburban mailing address that was listed; the address was a post office box in a UPS store.

Eventually, Pierce said, a member of the GN Bank board offered to help. The board member happened to live in her condo building and served on the board of its association as well, she said. Pierce said he told her she could avoid a foreclosure if she turned over her unit to the condo association.

When she thought about it, Pierce felt uneasy about his connections to both the bank and the condo building. “It seems like a conflict of interest,” she said. But this fall, she decided to accept the deal and “let the [condo] building deal with Yorke Properties,” she said. “It was best for me.”

Credit: Danielle Scruggs, special to ProPublica
Pierce at her former condo building. She said a GN Bank board member, who lived in her building and served on the board of its association as well, told her she could avoid a foreclosure if she turned over her unit to the condo association.

The board member has been hospitalized and could not discuss Pierce’s condo, according to his wife. Nduom didn’t respond to a question about Pierce’s mortgage but described Yorke as a way to help GN Bank.

“Yorke Properties was created to help save the bank by taking on troubled assets, like delinquent loans, that jeopardized its viability,” he said in his written statement. “Yorke is doing what it can to manage these troubled loans consistent with our values of customer service.”

Shutdowns in Ghana

After the bank started shifting assets to Yorke Properties, some of the family’s financial businesses in Ghana ran into trouble, too.

In 2017, the Bank of Ghana, the country’s central banking regulatory authority, announced new regulations it said would reform the country’s financial sector. Unable to comply, Groupe Nduom eventually closed dozens of its bank branches and turned away customers who wanted to withdraw their money, according to the Bank of Ghana.

Government regulators also received a flood of complaints about the family’s investment firm. As with the bank, investors said they were unable to access their funds. The government ordered the firm to stop receiving new investments until it could resolve pending claims.

By October 2018, Nduom was urging customers to stay calm. He also blamed the government for not doing enough to help, contrasting it with U.S. regulators who tried to assist banks with training. “What we are doing in the U.S., in some three years or so, it will be bigger than any bank in Ghana,” Nduom vowed.

But the setbacks for his businesses continued. On Aug. 16, 2019, the Bank of Ghana revoked the license of 23 banks, including the Nduoms’ bank. It had gone insolvent, the central bank regulators said, because it allowed other Groupe Nduom companies to withdraw money “under circumstances that violated prudential norms.” For example, the bank transferred money to the Nduoms’ investment funds, which then paid off customers without paying back what was owed to the bank. On top of that, an investigation had found that the bank had transferred more than $62 million of depositors’ money to International Business Solutions, a Groupe Nduom company in Virginia.

In November 2019, Ghana’s Security and Exchange Commission shut down the Nduoms’ investment firm, citing its failure to pay investors who wanted to cash out and the “placement of client funds with related parties without proper due diligence and the requisite standard of professional conduct.”

“STILL…NOTHING CAN CHANGE THESE FACTS,” Papa Kwesi Nduom wrote on his public figure Facebook page in November 2019. He stated that more than 9,000 customers had been repaid the equivalent of millions of U.S. dollars. “No matter what happens from here on, we remain committed to returning customers’ investments,” he wrote.

But a 2020 lawsuit alleged that some of the funds taken from customers in Ghana were transferred to International Business Solutions before the Nduoms acquired Illinois Service Federal. The lawsuit, brought by representatives of the customers and filed in federal court in Chicago, cited what it described as wire transfer records.

“No money of my family’s investment or banking companies abroad were used to purchase ISF,” Nduom told ProPublica. He didn’t offer any more details about how they financed the acquisition.

In November, a federal judge dismissed racketeering allegations in the lawsuit. The judge did not weigh in on the claims about the money transfers and left open the possibility that an amended complaint could be filed.

“I categorically deny recent attempts to smear my name and the name of GN Bank whether in court or otherwise,” Nduom said in his statement to ProPublica. “I believe in what we are doing at GN Bank, I am confident that we have acted lawfully and with the highest integrity and I look forward to GN Bank overcoming these attacks so that we can continue to serve the underserved black and brown community in Chicago.”

Mystified Customers

U.S. Rep. Bobby Rush, a Chicago Democrat, sponsored a bill this year to create an office within the OCC to help Black-owned and community banks. Among other initiatives, the office would ease regulations to give the banks more flexibility as long as their “safety and soundness” is not endangered. In an interview, Rush called on the Biden administration to get behind the measure as part of an effort to lift minority communities.

“In Chicago, we’re down to one Black-owned bank, GN Bank, and it’s on life support even as we speak,” Rush said. “It’s one sure sign that the economy in the Black community is fragile at best.”

By this summer, after closing its only branch location, in the Chatham neighborhood, GN Bank was down to one office and fewer than a dozen full-time employees, according to federal data. Customers say it has been harder than ever to deal with the bank.

Sharon Stewart received a letter this spring that shocked her.

“You are hereby notified that you are in default,” the letter said. It stated that Sharon and Dorothy Stewart had missed the mortgage payments on their Chicago three-flat for three years. If they didn’t pay $25,396.75 within 35 days, their building could go into foreclosure. The letter was dated May 10, 2021, and signed by a lawyer representing Yorke Properties.

Stewart grew angry. The letter was wrong — she kept her own records and was certain of it.

Stewart’s mother, Dorothy, had bought the property in Morgan Park, on Chicago’s far South Side, in 1975. When she decided to fix up the building in 1992, she turned to Illinois Service Federal for a loan. Though Sharon moved into her own home a few minutes away, she refinanced and took out another mortgage on the property over the next 20 years.

Credit: Danielle Scruggs, special to ProPublica
Sharon Stewart received a foreclosure letter this spring. But according to her own records, Stewart has made all of her payments, totaling more than $60,000, since 2018.

In 2018 they received notice that GN Bank had sold the two mortgages to Yorke Properties. After her mother grew ill and then died last year, Stewart made the payments herself, usually in person at the bank in between trips for her job as a flight attendant. Stewart kept records of the payments going back four years. But last year, after she asked bank employees for account records or payment histories, Nduom began texting her, offering to “regularize” her mortgages and seeking more of her financial records.

Stewart was mystified. She didn’t know what he meant by regularizing her loans. And why would the bank need more of her financial information?

She didn’t know that Yorke Properties, her new lender, was entangled in a lawsuit by that time.

In late 2020, Yorke Properties defaulted on its loan from the California lender and owed more than $2 million, according to a suit filed in Cook County court. Attorneys for Yorke and the Nduoms then tried to compel Stewart and other borrowers to pay Yorke more money by threatening to foreclose on their homes.

Stewart received her foreclosure letter in May. But according to her own records, Stewart has made all of her payments, totaling more than $60,000, since 2018. She said she can’t afford to hire a lawyer, and though she doesn’t trust GN Bank, she continues to make mortgage payments.

“I’m just trying to protect myself,” she said. “I don’t want them to take the property.”

Last summer, Stewart talked to an official with the OCC about her dealings with the bank, she said. She hasn’t heard from the agency since.