Broken Homes

Harper's on the ground in the housing bust

A Credit to Harper’s for a brutal piece (subscription required) on cleaning out foreclosed upon and abandoned houses. We have noted excellent reporting on this unenviable job in the past, but this piece stands out because the reporter has a personal connection to it: It is his father’s job.

Reporter Paul Reyes is in the unusual position of being both a participant in the sad, often seamy side of the mortgage crisis, and a writer. His piece is a testament to the importance of that rare species: first-person journalism on the credit crisis (we ran one of those yesterday).

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.

What follows is a chain of searing anecdotes as Reyes, an editor at The Oxford American, tags along with his father’s crew. He records a series of cutting and thought-provoking scenes, like this exchange between the two regular members of the cleanup crew:

‘You know why so many people are losing their houses?’ Hector asked. ‘Yeah, sure, people lose their jobs, but the majority—thousands! Hundreds of thousands!—they lost their homes because the people at the bank, many of them, are wicked! They don’t tell you that the interest rates are going to go up. They just make you sign the papers. They cheat you!’

Ismael, inspired, blurted out: ‘You need to think about your resources, whether you have the means or not to pay for a house. That’s why the Bible says, “For which one of you, when he wants to build a tower, does not first sit down and calculate&mdash”’

Hector cut him off: ‘No, that’s different, that’s not what I’m talking about.’

‘It’s the same thing.”

‘No, totally different.’

‘But only what you&mdash’

‘We’re talking about something else.’

What exactly they are talking about becomes clearer as the article proceeds—the displacement of people, many of whom already lived at the economic margins.

Reyes repeatedly struggles to understand lives by what gets left behind: photos, birthday cards, bills, stuffed animals, shoes. But sometimes, in perhaps the most memorable passages, we get the people themselves

Here is an exchange between a couple about to lose their house and Reyes’s stepmother, Mena, a real estate agent working on behalf of the bank. Reyes is listening in:

I could hear Ronnie moaning on the other end of the line.

‘Is there no way that we can move out and then try to re-buy the house back again?’ Kay asked.

‘The only way that you might be able to buy the house back is maybe have your family purchase the house and, later on, they can do a deed to you, and you can be the owner. But if you had a hard time trying to get somebody to refinance the house, it’s going to be more difficult now, because automatically you credit score dropped 200 points.’

We couldn’t figure out if the noises coming over the line were speakerphone glitches or noises of distress—voices broken, vowels dragging.

And, later, Reyes’s thoughts on this sliver of a look inside the housing catastrophe:

I left the room and stepped outside for a minute, overwhelmed, knowing we’d likely see Kay and Ronnie again, with a sheriff in front of us. Even if Kay could get a loan, there wasn’t a single institution in this economic climate that would lend her a cent for that shabby house. Hearing Kay’s panicked voice, one could understand the depth of this crisis in a way that the business pages failed to convey.

This article aims at the gut and finds its target—as good reporting from the frontlines of disaster should.

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Elinore Longobardi is a Fellow and staff writer of The Audit, the business-press section of Columbia Journalism Review.