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Jose Vega, of Pittsburg, has his photo taken in front of his Izalco Catering gourmet pupusas booth at the Concord Farmers' Market in Concord, Calif., on Thursday, Sept. 20, 2012. Vega, a former real estate agent before the real estate crash, almost lost his house to foreclosure. He fought Chase bank over the foreclosure of his home and won. He is now a well known activist in the anti-foreclosure scene. Vega, currently works as a waiter on weekends and sells gourmet pupusas at farmer's markets. (Doug Duran/Staff)

The housing bubble and the collapse that followed left a generation of Bay Area homebuyers struggling to recover from failed investments and shattered dreams.

From January 2007 through September this year, nearly 102,000 homes in the South Bay, East Bay and on the Peninsula have changed hands through foreclosure, according to ForeclosureRadar. Others were sold for less than the amount of the mortgage in a transaction called a short sale -- more than 29,000 homes in Santa Clara, San Mateo, Contra Costa and Alameda counties since 2009, according to MLSListings and the Contra Costa and Bay East real estate associations.

"For many people, foreclosure is a devastating economic consequence short only of bankruptcy, wiping out any down payment and damaging people's credit histories and credit scores for a considerable period of time," said Paul Leonard, California director of the Center for Responsible Lending. "But people must get on with their lives."

Now foreclosures are waning, but the impact continues. Here are the stories of four people who had the bad luck to buy at the top of the market. Three lost their homes to either a foreclosure or a short sale and another became an activist and fought back.

The Iraq veteran

U.S. Army National Guard veteran Wilfred Bertiz would rather face the Taliban than the economy that took his home, two tech jobs and his retirement savings.

After serving in Iraq in 2004, Bertiz returned to his Silicon Valley job at a company that makes computer servers, only to lose it in a downsizing. He got a job repairing computers, but lost that when business slowed with the lengthening downturn. His San Jose townhouse was foreclosed on in 2010 while he was trying to arrange a loan modification.

"One department was saying, 'OK, the loan is good, you're good to go, there's nothing to worry about,' and the next thing I know, there's a notice that my house will be auctioned off in downtown San Jose."

Bertiz, 52, who is now working as a security guard, recently re-upped in the National Guard for a tour in Afghanistan to "add a little bit more toward my retirement. I've been living off my 401(k) all these years, and it's running dry now."

But a hernia operation may have upended his plans. He was told he probably faces a medical discharge next year instead of making his second war zone tour in eight years.

Once in a while, he and one of his sons drive back to the old neighborhood to look for a dog that ran away while he was moving out. Recently he drove by his old townhouse.

"There was nobody in it," he said. "There's not even a for sale sign on it."

Short sale in Antioch

A year and a half ago, Tracy Cross, 36, and her husband put their Antioch home up for a short sale after five years of increasing worry about making their mortgage.

"About year three we started to realize, 'OK, I think we're kind of in trouble.' But even in year four, we were hoping we were not one of those people who were going to lose their home," said Cross, who had an interest-only loan that was due to reset to a higher payment after five years.

Cross worked with her lender for six months on a loan modification. "It was nonstop paperwork, and in the end they say you don't qualify. And you start over again."

Eight months later, the bank agreed to a short sale, and the home was put on the market.

"I didn't want to tell anybody," she recalled. "I just felt ashamed."

The home she and her husband bought for $486,000 in 2005 at the peak of the housing market was sold for $173,000 last year.

But life has been better than she expected.

"At the beginning I was very sad, I felt like such a loser. I can't own a home. At the same time, I'm thankful we don't have to pay this bill back, which was huge."

Now living in a nearby rented house, Tracy Cross recently checked her credit and says the short sale didn't have that much of an impact. "I could buy a car if I wanted to."

Conversations with former neighbors make her feel better about giving up on a home that had lost more than half its value.

"There have been more foreclosures and a lot of people renting. A lot of them bought around the same time we did and are in same boat I was in. I was the only one who took the leap."

Back to square one

Leslie Martin said she has "gone completely backward in time."

After losing her San Jose townhouse in a foreclosure, she returned to the apartment she had before buying her home in 2006.

"I've been pretty lucky. I have a nice place that I live in, I still have a job. I just take it one day at a time. There's always somebody worse than me," said Martin, 48, who works for the city of San Jose.

Martin tried for a year to get her loan modified under the federal Making Home Affordable program. The process was frustrating. "Your file, I feel like it just gets thrown up in the air on the other end. Finally, I was declined because I didn't make enough money. And that was before my pay cut."

The townhouse she bought for $425,000 in 2006 was purchased for $245,000 by an investment company in May and resold for $320,000 in August. The $80,000 down payment she made is gone.

That wasn't her only heartbreak. Her father died in February and her mom has brain cancer. Still, she said, "I have a pretty good outlook, but there's days. The weird thing is, I didn't like the place. It was supposed to be an investment."

Would she consider buying again? "I don't think I ever will. But you never know, something strange might come my way."

Activist

For former real estate agent Jose Vega, having his Pittsburg home foreclosed on was the most bitter moment of his life. But fighting back against the bank gave him the confidence to become the public face of a Bay Area anti-foreclosure movement.

"I have made a bad situation into a good situation. That's what I want people to hear," he said. "Now I look back and it only made me a better person and stronger person."

But that was after many tears, self-recrimination, marital problems and a nose-dive in his 9-year-old son's grades. And there were dark days of apartment hunting, when the Vegas realized they could only afford a tiny place in a "bad" part of town.

The Vegas still own the house that they bought in 2006 with a $400,000 loan from now-defunct Washington Mutual Bank, but it was a struggle to keep it. In 2009, they were approved for a trial mortgage modification. After six months of making monthly payments, he said, "I came home to find a notice of trustee sale posted on my door." His home was to be auctioned off.

To save it, he enlisted U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein's help and joined a church-based anti-foreclosure group, the Contra Costa Interfaith Supporting Community Organization.

Vega represented the group at JPMorgan Chase's annual shareholders meeting in New York in May 2010, demanding of the bank's chairman, Jamie Dimon, that it stop foreclosing on homeowners while simultaneously working with them to modify their loans.

That is called "dual tracking," and it becomes illegal in California on Jan. 1, under a key provision of California's newly adopted Homeowners Bill of Rights, which Vega helped lobby for. Under a national settlement, five major lenders agreed to restrictions on the practice beginning Oct. 1.

Ten months after that meeting, the day before Vega's house was to be sold at auction, Chase called with an offer of a loan modification. The payment now is just slightly higher than comparable rents.

Vega says his family is closer after the ordeal. His son has pulled his grades back to a 4.0 and his daughter wants to be a doctor.

He and his wife started a Salvadoran food business that sells gourmet pupusas at several farmers markets, and he works weekends as a waiter at a country club. He says he is in the hiring process to become a BART train operator.

Vega cherishes a photo of himself and his two kids with state Attorney General Kamala Harris the day the Legislature passed the Homeowners Bill of Rights.

"It was the single proudest moment of my life," he said. "I fought and I beat them. They didn't break me down."

Contact Pete Carey at 408-920-5419.