Empty Houses By Shea Howell -By Shea Howell

Thinking for ourselves

By Shea Howell

Empty Houses

Week 58 of the occupation

May 17, 2014


bfly_yellowwenHomes left empty by the foreclosure crisis are like open wounds. My neighborhood is no exception. Over the years we have had our share of abandoned houses, but most found their way to new families.

But the foreclosure crisis hit us like a tidal wave. Three years ago my neighbor of 35 years left her home. A retired DPS teacher, she took out a loan to fix her roof, build a new garage, and pave her driveway. Sensible repairs on a house she intended to live in with her sister until she died.  She was too embarrassed to tell anyone that the loan she took out to pay for these repairs had suddenly ballooned. Even with the help of her sister it was too much for her.

So one morning the moving truck arrived. By evening she was gone, leaving a box of things on the porch she thought her children might want. Only as she was pulling out did she call and tell them what had happened.

She had raised three children in that house. They had celebrated birthdays, graduations, and daily life. Her sons grew to adulthood with the help of the basketball net above the garage doors. Her husband died in that house. Over the years it expanded to include grandchildren and friends. It was a place of memory and comfort, conflict and sorrow. And it was a source of community safety. Someone was always home, keeping an eye on the comings and going. It was the house we all went to for the neighborhood news.

That disappeared in a day. Her children came for the box, shocked. They would have helped. They had no idea. In the end they emptied the box. All that was left of the life they had shared.

Over the next two years the only thing the bank did was paste a sign on the window. Neighbors organized to keep the grass cut, shovel the snow, and pick up the leaflets that seemed to appear every day. We kept watch and discouraged those who tried to take pipes and siding.

Finally, we were lucky.  A couple bought the house. But they cannot replace the hole left in our community. Relationships build over time, shared lives and experiences disrupted are a ragged edge, not easily repaired.

I have been thinking about the day my neighbor left as I read the report from the Haas Institute this week. “Underwater America” describes how the problem of “underwater mortgages” where homeowners are stuck in loans for more than their house is worth persists in communities across the country. It documents that the housing crisis is far from over.

It explains, “How the legacy of predatory lending has meant a disproportionate negative impact on African American and Latino communities.

“Neighborhoods in all regions of the country – from Milwaukee to Memphis, Atlanta to Las Vegas, and beyond – are continuing to suffer with more than one fifth of homes currently underwater in the 15 hardest hit metropolitan areas with populations over one million,” said Professor Gregory Squires, of the Department of Sociology at George Washington University.

Detroit ranks number 5 of the hardest hit cities with 47% of our homes underwater. It is number 1 in the absolute number of homes in foreclosure or default in 2013.

Behind these numbers are the lives of people facing impossible, painful choices.

Professor Squires offers some hope, saying, “The failure of a wide array of federal programs to stem this tide has caused many desperate local communities to consider bold action, including the use of eminent domain, to purchase these loans at current market value and refinance them to help millions of at-risk families to save their homes. These local laboratories of democracy may well signal a nationwide social movement that will put the financial crisis behind us.

Welcome as our Mayor’s efforts to invite families into now empty houses, we need to do a lot more to strengthen our communities.