As a business-media critic, I sometimes get caught up in the crush of events and forget that at the heart of this crisis are an estimated four million people who will lose their homes through foreclosure.
Which is odd, because it happened to me.
I was about fifteen. It was back in the early 1990s. My family — dad, mom, sister and I — lived on 56th Place in Tulsa, Oklahoma, sharing what I thought was a more-or-less normal, middle-class life.
We owned a three bedroom, 1,900 square foot house with a big corner lot that seemingly took me hours to mow. We had two cars, cable TV, a Nintendo, a basketball hoop in front, and my mom’s garden in back. My two best friends lived down the cul-de-sac and a block over, and my house was our headquarters for sports, games, and midnight runs to Whataburger.
But my dad had gotten sick a few years earlier and was unable to work. A government program kept us in our home for a couple of years and then, it was over, and we had to go.
I thought it might be useful to share my experience and explain firsthand what it was like, from one business reporter to another and to anyone who reads the business press. (UPDATE: See my follow-up post on the response to this piece)
I’ll bet that very few, if any, business reporters working today at major media outlets have personally been through a foreclosure. I’d bet very few business reporters know anyone who has been through a foreclosure or is on the brink. I’d go as far as to bet that, unfortunately, a surprisingly small number of working business reporters have even interviewed anyone going through a foreclosure.
I say all this not to make anyone feel guilty or to imply that you can’t cover these things well if you haven’t experienced them firsthand. I just think it’s important that the financial press think about the fact that we, most of us, come from a particular social and economic class, and we spend most of the time talking to and interviewing people even better off than we are. We are middle class. Most of us are white. Everybody went to college; many to elite schools. We just don’t run with the foreclosure crowd.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m glad business reporters are well-educated and don’t have to peer out the curtains to see if the person at the front door is the sheriff with an eviction notice. And this crisis is certainly affecting people far beyond the lower-income levels. But sometimes I wonder if we had been in better touch with regular people outside our circles, we might have been more attuned to the perilous state of the American middle class and what the effects of the lending boom might be, and thus might have provided better warnings.
In any case, I’ve got my own story about what it’s like to lose one’s home.
We bounced around a few rentals when I was small before my folks were able to save up enough to put ten percent down on the $85,000 house on 56th Place in 1985. They got a plain old thirty-year fixed-rate mortgage through the Federal Housing Administration.
My dad supported us by working two jobs. During the day, he laid carpet with a partner. At night, he worked the graveyard shift as assistant manager of the produce department of a Skaggs Alpha Beta. Both jobs were physically demanding and didn’t pay tremendously, though combined they supported us well enough.
He didn’t sleep very much. He was basically a workaholic. I didn’t care too much, except when I got dragged along in the summer to do carpet.
Laying carpets is lousy work (not that stocking produce in the middle of the night is a picnic). Carpet rolls weigh hundreds of pounds. Stretching it requires a tool you kick with your knee, which is brutal on your joints. We installed carpet in new houses with no air conditioning in 105-degree Oklahoma heat. The biggest problem was the overpowering fumes (technically called volatile organic compounds) from the carpet and glue.
One day, my dad didn’t get up in the morning. He had no energy. Indeed, he didn’t get up for weeks. I asked what was going on, and my mom said he was sick but they didn’t know why.
For two years doctors tried to find out what the problem was, but the tests were inconclusive. His joints had swollen up to the point that he literally couldn’t get out of bed much of the time. Other times when he did, he’d collapse on the floor until someone came home to help him up. He went from workaholic to totally disabled in a few weeks.