President Obama visited Richard and Tiffany Santana in their basement apartment in Falls Church the other day. The president brought the Santanas’ son Noah a cool presidential medallion, a Barack Obama-autographed yo-yo and some White House M&Ms. The Santanas provided the president with a useful, compelling tale of a middle class family that works hard, plays by the rules, and faces undue hardship if the nation falls off the fiscal cliff and the family’s taxes bump up by $4,000.
What neither the president nor the 26 members of his staff who crowded into the Santanas’ living room found out in their 50-minute visit was that the family’s story is more complex than that simple, supportive fable: The Santanas, it turns out, reached the edge of a fiscal cliff of their own, and although they’ve found what looks like stability, they’ve done so, like so many other Americans in the aftermath of the Great Recession, by reining in their dreams.
The president said the Santanas “worked hard and played by the rules.” What he didn’t know is that the four adults who live in the basement on James Lee Street have gone through bankruptcy three times, had to move in together to rebuild their lives, and now face the very real prospect of eviction – not because of anything they’ve done, but because Fairfax County says their landlord rented them an illegal, unsafe apartment.
The Santanas’ story, as told in a video on the White House’s website, is a straightforward one in which, as the president put it, “a couple of thousand dollars means a couple months’ rent for this family. For them to be burdened unnecessarily because Democrats and Republicans aren’t coming together to solve this problem gives you a sense of the costs involved in very personal terms.”
But what Richard and Tiffany Santana have gone through in recent years lends support to both Democratic and Republican views of the nation’s woes – for example, are they facing the loss of their home because a lack of tough regulations allowed them to lose their former residence and forced them to move in with Tiffany’s parents, or because overzealous regulators are now coming after their landlord for ignoring the county’s zoning code?
When Barack Obama was a young senator who delivered an electrifying speech at the 2004 Democratic convention, Tiffany Santana was so wowed, she told her mother that this man could be president. Not anytime soon, of course, but a decade or two down the road. Tiffany’s mother, Velma Massenburg, equally impressed, said she was going to meet that man, just you watch.
Two weeks ago, Santana, 36, who teaches English to ninth and twelfth graders at George Marshall High School, was scrolling through her Facebook news feed when she saw a link to a White House web page called My2K, a compendium of ordinary Americans’ stories about how a $2,000 tax hike would muck up their lives. Santana sat down and wrote her own story in one paragraph.
“Two thousand dollars for me would be paying a month’s rent,” she said. “It’s something very tangible. It’s something that we need.”
She clicked “Submit your story” on a Thursday night. Two days later, she got an email from the White House’s deputy director of digital strategy, who said a video crew might want to come by. The next day, the White House called again to say that a team from the Secret Service would be coming over because “a senior White House person might come visit,” Santana recalls.
If the Santanas had any doubts about what that coy language meant, those questions were answered the next day, when 20 Secret Service agents trooped into the apartment and spent the day inspecting every inch of the place and setting up equipment.
Then, on Thursday the 6th, after agents built a tarped tunnel for the president to walk through as he navigated the dirt path around the house to the back basement entrance, the entourage arrived. Twenty-six people — staffers, agents, a lot of guys in suits — swarmed into the apartment, according to Noah, who is six and was apparently the only one who counted the crowd.
The president knew how to put his hosts at ease. He’d been briefed on Noah’s passions — sharks and dinosaurs — and the hugs he gave the Santanas helped calm their nerves.
“And my grandmother” -- Noah checks to make sure no one else can hear this state secret, then drops to a whisper — “she got kissed.”
After Obama greeted the family, the reporters who accompany the president everywhere he goes were summoned inside to hear his pitch on how to avert the fiscal cliff. This family, the president said, has “dreams and ambitions.... And they’re keeping it together, they’re working hard, they’re meeting their responsibilities.”
When the economy cratered in 2008, Tiffany and Richard Santana, who then lived in Norfolk, fell hard. Unable to pay their mortgage, they lost their home, Tiffany said. And faced with between $100,000 and $500,000 in debts to 18 consumer creditors, including student loans, credit cards, a car loan, and several stores, the couple entered Chapter 13 bankruptcy, which allows deeply indebted wage earners to reduce and stretch out payments to creditors.
For Richard Santana, it was his second time going bankrupt; he spent from 1996 to 2001 under Chapter 13 as well, according to court records. And Tiffany’s parents, Velma and Jimmie Massenburg, were also in bankruptcy in the ’90s.
Life dealt the family another blow when Richard’s son from a previous relationship was killed in 2009.
The Santanas decided to start over. They made arrangements through the court to pay their debts over time; to economize, they moved to Falls Church to live together with Tiffany’s parents. In 2010, they all rented a three-bedroom apartment in the basement of an old family friend’s house.
“We’ve learned a lot,” she said. “We live a lot more within our means now. We’re very careful about credit. You grow and you have a child and you change. We realized we don’t need a lot to be happy, to survive.”
The four adults have cut back to two cars and shuttle each other to work. Richard is a porter at a Toyota dealership in Springfield, Tiffany teaches, her mother takes care of little ones at a day care, and Tiffany’s father is a postal worker.
In March, the Santanas expect to make their final payments on their old debt. Finally, they will be clear.
“We are a family that will always survive,” Santana said. “My grandfather always said he wanted our family to all live together. He finally got his wish.”
After the reporters were ushered out of the room, the president sat down with the Santanas and Massenburgs at the dining table. Obama immediately seemed like a different guy.
“It was a lot more relaxed once the press left,” Santana said. “I tell my students about personas — your work persona could be very different from how you are at home. Well, that’s how he was. I observe things. I was even looking at his nails, like, would they be all manicured and perfect? They’re totally unmanicured. A regular guy.”
Obama asked about their jobs, their church, their son. He joked with Richard about the challenge of living with your mother-in-law, as the president does over at 1600 Pennsylvania.
Then Tiffany asked the president if they could pray with him. He immediately reached out and everyone joined hands around the table. Tiffany prayed that Obama be well protected and encouraged.
A White House staffer then noticed that the Santanas had life-size cutout posters of President and Mrs. Obama, and that led to a round of photos, and then it was time to leave. Tiffany moved the black leather chair that Obama sat on against the wall, where it has stayed — a museum piece now, at least until the next holiday family gathering, when they’ll need the extra seating.
On his way out, the president complimented the Santanas on their “beautiful home.”
What he didn’t know was that the Santanas’ apartment was illegally built in the basement of a sprawling five-bedroom house and is the subject of a criminal investigation by Fairfax County as well as numerous code violations cited by county inspectors.
The Santanas’ landlord, Fred Gaskins, has failed to comply with repeated orders from Fairfax’s code enforcement office and from the courts, said Brian Worthy, a spokesman for the county government. Gaskins did not return calls seeking comment.
“There are complaints that go back to the late 90s,” Worthy said. “He’s essentially operating an illegal boarding house. There are clearly some very serious safety issues.”
Fairfax inspectors found the basement apartment to be illegal because two bedrooms lack windows and therefore a second means of egress in case of fire.
“It’s a very unfortunate situation, but the county’s responsible for the safety of homes and apartments,” Worthy said. “If there’s a fire there, there could be a tragedy.” The county informed the Santanas last summer that they would likely have to vacate the building. Worthy said the family would receive ample notice before an eviction.
“We may have to move,” Santana said. Her family had no idea when they moved in that the apartment failed to meet code. It was a big space in a beautiful house, a place that backs onto a creek and woods where the Santanas see foxes and deer, rabbits and hawks.
Moving would be another blow, another reset, Santana said.
And if their taxes rise a few thousand dollars next year, that would be one more hurdle in their path. But with the four of them working now, “we’re stable, we’re ok,” she said. They might have to move Noah out of his taekwando class, “maybe find a less expensive after-school activity.” But she knows they can handle it.
“We’d have to make do,” she said. “That’s been our way forever.”