DETROIT — It was their dream home, a two-story, four-bedroom colonial in one of Detroit's nicest and most stable neighborhoods.
But then, one day in December, City Councilman Kwame Kenyatta and his wife packed up their belongings, locked the doors, mailed in the keys and walked away — adding another vacant house to the thousands in a city hard hit by the nation's mortgage crisis.
"We're already underwater when it comes to what we're paying on the house versus what the house is worth," Kenyatta said.
Around the country, the practice, sometimes referred to as "mortgage walking" or "jingle mail," appears to be growing. But for Kenyatta, the decision could do more than hurt his credit rating.
It could damage his bid for mayor of Detroit this summer, particularly since he has been one of the city's most vocal supporters of measures to improve neighborhoods and clean up blight.
"If I'm going to follow you, you need to be a leader," said Patricia Dixon, a former neighbor of Kenyatta's. "You don't show leadership by walking away from your home in the city of Detroit. You have vandalism where they find out the houses are vacant. You have people stealing fireplaces."
Kenyatta, a Democrat, is not the only elected official facing mortgage trouble. The Wayne County prosecutor's Detroit home has gone into foreclosure. And California Rep. Laura Richardson nearly lost her home before she paid up delinquent home loans.
Walking away from a mortgage isn't illegal; the bank takes possession and tries to sell the house. But "it just puts more properties in foreclosures, and that's the last thing we need right now. That's just pulling the median sales price down," said Karen Kage, who runs a real estate listing service in suburban Detroit.
In Detroit, the median sales price for a home is now a pathetic $5,800, down more than $66,000 from seven years ago. An estimated 16,000 foreclosed homes are on the market in the city of about 920,000 residents. Detroit also has one of the highest unemployment rates in the nation, at around 20 percent.
Kenyatta's former neighborhood, North Rosedale Park, is unlike most of the rest of Detroit. Stately, well-kept brick homes line quiet, winding streets. It fights to hold off blight from surrounding northwest side neighborhoods.
Kenyatta's former home is the ugly duckling on its block. Dead grass spreads gray across the lawn. Withered advertising circulars are strewn about the porch and the hedges.
Bought for $225,000, the home nose-dived in value to $100,000, according to Kenyatta. Its manageable $2,600-a-month mortgage soon was about to soar about $1,000.
About five months ago, the Kenyattas moved to a rented condo on the city's east side. It has three bedrooms, four baths, a whirlpool bath, finished basement and garage. The rent is less than their old mortgage. (In Detroit, City Council members are elected from the city at large, not from districts, so leaving the neighborhood does not affect Kenyatta's eligibility to serve.)
"It's not like I'm making out like a fat rat here," Kenyatta said. "The credit is now going to be shot."
Kenyatta said that because his mortgage payments were made on time and he was not in foreclosure, he did not qualify for any relief programs through his lender.
Kenyatta, 53, once served on the Detroit school board and was a Wayne County commissioner before winning his council seat in 2005. He council salary is about $81,000 a year. His wife, Monifa, also a former county commissioner, is retired.
Kenyatta said he hopes voters can separate the personal from the political with the August mayoral primary approaching.
"History will show that some of the greatest leaders who did great work for the public may not have done so good by themselves," he said. "In most cases, they neglect themselves to take care of the people's business. My record in public office, I'm proud of it. I think I've done good."
But public confidence in Detroit's political leadership has been in the cellar for more than a year, beginning with the scandal over then-Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick's affair with his chief aide. Both were charged with perjury and sent to jail.
Kenyatta can only hope that Detroit voters are forgiving.
"If voters view being an excellent financial manager as an essential quality for the mayor, then it may cause him problems," said Lyke Thompson, director of the Center for Urban Studies at Wayne State University in Detroit. "If on the other hand, they sympathize with him because so many voters have had similar troubles, it may be less of a problem."
Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.