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Photo: Greg Kahn

Ernestine Harris fought the bank and the government for the right to stay in her Atlanta home. And she won.

This month, A Beautiful Perspective relaunched as a digital magazine tackling a single theme each month. For our first month, we’re exploring the concept of home. Click here to read more stories from the HOME Issue.

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Ernestine Harris lives in a modest one-story home on Gresham Avenue in Brownwood Park. She and her late husband, George, moved to this suburb of Atlanta in 1975. Now, at 68, she sits at the top of the driveway in a wooden chair most days, waving to neighbors and friends passing by.

She’s celebrated four kids, 11 grandkids and four great grandchildren in this house. But when her husband died four years ago, the bank came for her home.

Mrs. Harris was too young to be on the mortgage when she and George bought the property. After her husband died, Mrs. Harris said the bank gave her 30 days to vacate. At the time, Department of Housing and Urban Development policy required foreclosure after the death of reverse mortgage borrowers. As a result, Mrs. Harris faced eviction, saying the bank refused to take her mortgage payments.

For the bank, the home and its neglected facade with white and green peeling paint and loose-shingle siding is an attractive location in fast-gentrifying Atlanta. A home across the street now has a second story, landscaping and a two car garage. Citywide, 31,678 black residents left between 2000 and 2010, while 22,763 white residents moved in. In Brownwood Park, home values continue to rise—up 54 percent in 10 years. The number of residents with bachelor degrees more than doubled between 2000 to 2010.

Experts use this Census data to examine how communities shift. Capital improvement, fair market value and sales comparison become part of a formula that determines which neighborhoods are “desirable.” For the financial institutions, people and communities are the sum of the economic factors that drive the market.

Memories of George are not part of that equation. They fill every room. Christmas decorations hang over the living room entryway. Stacks of George’s things sit in the dining room, as though Mrs. Harris’s life paused the moment he passed away. The bank sees the type of wood used for the floorboards. Mrs. Harris sees her daughter’s first steps on that floor.

Even though federal policy protects spouses on reverse mortgages, HUD’s policy called for the mortgage to be paid in full, so the bank attempted to foreclose.  Mrs. Harris fought back in court with the help of Atlanta Legal Aid and got HUD’s rule declared illegal, allowing Ernestine to stay in her home and setting a precedent nationwide.

“I like being here in my home, I can open the door, close the door, say come in or get out.”

Brownwood Park is changing. Mrs. Harris remains.

“I’m still here,” she sings.

This isn’t her house, it’s her home.