By Isaiah Thompson, Special to ProPublica
When Rochelle Bing bought her modest row home on a tattered block in North Philadelphia 10 years ago, she saw it as an investment in the future for her extended family — especially for her 18 grandchildren.
Bing, 42, works full-time as a home health assistant for the elderly and disabled. In summer when school is out, her house is awash with grandkids whom Bing tends to while their parents work. And the home has been a haven in troubled times when her children needed help or a father went to jail. One of Bing's grandchildren lives there now.
"That's the only reason I bought my home — I needed stability for my children," Bing said. "And if anything was to happen to me, they would have a home to live in."
But four years ago, something happened that imperiled Bing's plans. In October 2009, police raided the house and charged her son, Andrew, then 24, with selling 8 packets of crack cocaine to an undercover informant. (Upon entering the house, police reported finding unused packets, though not drugs, in a rear bedroom.) Rochelle Bing was not present and was not accused of a crime. Yet she soon received a frightening letter from the Philadelphia district attorney's office. Because Andrew had sold the drugs from inside his mother's house, a task force of law enforcement officials moved to seize Bing's house. They filed a court claim, quickly approved, that gave Bing just 30 days to dissuade a judge from granting "a decree of forfeiture" that would give the DA's office title to the property. Bing was devastated.
"For me to lose my home," she recalled recently, "for them to take that from me, knowing I had grandchildren - that would have hurt me more than anything." And so Bing resolved to do what whatever was necessary to keep the house.
She had no idea how long and how difficult that fight would be.