Article — From the October 2008 issue

Bleak Houses

Digging through the ruins of the mortgage crisis

When I ask my father what he remembers about the first houses he “trashed out”—a phrase we use to describe the process of entering a home that has been foreclosed upon by the bank, and that the bank would like to sell, and hauling all of what the dispossessed owner has left behind to the nearest dump, then returning to clean the place by spraying every corner and wiping every inch of glass, deleting every fingerprint, scrubbing the boot marks off the linoleum, bleaching the cruddy toilets, sweeping up the hair and sand and dust, steaming the stains out of the carpet (or, if the carpet is unsalvageably rancid, tearing it out), and eventually, thereby, erasing all traces of whoever lived there, dispensing with both their physical presence and the ugly aura of eviction—he says he doesn’t remember much. It was around fifteen years ago, for one thing, well before I joined him; and since then he has trashed out so much bizarre flotsam, under such strange circumstances, that his memories of those first few houses have faded.

None of the anecdotes my father shares about his work are uplifting. Sure, there are comedies and tragicomedies, and some plots are shot through with an absurdity that seems indigenous to Florida, where this began for us. But overall the situation remains bleakly fixed: every foreclosed house, empty or not, clean or crumbling, feels lost, no matter the neighborhood or amenities, no matter the waterfront view. Some houses are found spotless, others in a wretched degradation, and the varieties are shared among the rich and poor, the elderly and upwardly mobile. Some houses are lost before ever having been lived in. Others, abandoned long ago, provide shelter for addicts, bums, whores, snakes, strays, and low fungal kingdoms that fan out in the darkness, kick-started, maybe, by a cat turd or bowl of leftovers.

The junk left behind has fascinated me since I began working for my father ten years ago—during holidays, or between jobs, boomeranging between his home in Tampa and wherever I ended up next—tagging along with his regular crew, a pair of Puerto Rican laborers who start the day at six and call it at three. I’ve always been the crew’s weak link, both because I flinch in places that, after a year of abandonment, have become so gloriously foul, and because I can’t help but read a narrative in what has been discarded. I begin to pick, sweating nearly every item we throw away, creeping among gadgets and notes and utility bills and photographs in order to decipher who lived there and how they lost it, a life partially revealed by stuff marinating in a fetid stillness. It is a guilt-ridden literary forensics, because to confront the junk is to confront the individuality being purged from a place. My father has never been all that interested in this particular angle. He likes to keep things simple: he gets an address, the crew goes to work. Now and then I join them, but I’ve never been much good at keeping up.

Foreclosures are our family business. My father moved us to Florida in 1984, when I was thirteen, and after starting a small construction company, and losing it, and, after a relatively diplomatic divorce from my mother and a brief midlife crisis, marrying again, to a real estate agent this time, he began dabbling in houses—repairing them, restoring the historic ones, flipping most for a modest profit, redeeming his misery behind a desk by building things. His second wife, Mena, had been working with foreclosures for a while, and with my father now close at hand, when it came time to clean a place out, she knew who could do the job. The houses kept coming, but for every home lost, odds were that a buyer could be found: real estate in Florida was at least somewhat predictable. Even during the boom of the early 2000s, foreclosures were common but eventually became solvent properties within a matter of weeks.

By the time I flew home this spring, however, buyers had long since disappeared, and houses by the thousands—both new and old—now sat empty, beginning their slow corrosion. The crowds that once camped outside subdivision gates, hoping to snatch a prime lot, had evaporated, and the subdivisions were devouring their own value: homes built in 2006 were being repossessed within a year and by spring 2008 sold for half as much as the surrounding homes, finished just a few months earlier. Some homeowners, in a brave tactic, were simply walking away from their debt, mailing the keys to the bank. While the Federal Reserve weighed its billion-dollar pledges to the institutions that had puppeteered the biggest economic collapse since the Great Depression, the statistical damage on the ground was giving that comparison some weight: between the time Florida’s housing market began to cool off in 2005 and my arrival this past spring, the rate of homes being lost had quadrupled, to more than 35,000 per month, 4,700 of which were in cities within my father’s working radius—Tampa, St. Petersburg, Clearwater. The collapse was surreal in its proportion, biblical in its egalitarian reach, like an economic cleansing fire.

And yes, this spring, my father’s crew and I were flush with work.

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