David B.




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August 22, 2008

The Faces of Foreclosure: Across America, Nobody’s Home


The red brick house across the street has fresh paint on the trim, a new roof and several shade trees dotting a three-quarter-acre double lot. It’s a typical clean and inviting-looking home in a middle-class Detroit suburb, on a quiet street lined with similarly clean and inviting-looking homes. In the vernacular of an enthusiastic real estate salesman, it could be said to “have everything.” Everything except occupants.


That wasn’t always the case. For over two decades, this was the home of a hard-working middle class couple, their two daughters and one son and a succession of dogs and cats. Dad was an auto mechanic who’d graduated from working for various service stations and dealerships to founding his own successful repair shop on a busy road near a major freeway. Mom was a full-time homemaker who, when not cooking or cleaning, spent the majority of her time trying to corral three rambunctious children.


By all appearances, this was an all-American family living out an all-American success story, gradually inching their way further up the economic ladder and seeming to enjoy the journey. As their children grew, as their fortunes improved, neighbors could see the outward signs: An expansive, newly built deck; a playhouse and swing set for the kids.


There was even enough left over for a few toys for mom and dad. In the summertime, a hot-rodded 1960s pickup truck, lovingly restored by the father’s hands in his own shop, glistened in the driveway. When it came time for the occasional cruise around the neighborhood, nearly three tons of steel and chrome would rumble to life with a roar, the sound echoing down the block. Dad would cruise slowly around the neighborhood, arm dangling out the window, showing off the meticulous custom paintwork, living out the dream of hundreds of Detroit gearheads who wished for their own fully-restored vintage ride.


The truck, or the absence of it, was the first sign that all was not well in the red brick house. In June 2007, the truck and its deafening roar disappeared from the driveway. Dad’s health wasn’t what it used to be, and times were hard at the shop. As auto company layoffs kicked in and the region’s economic downturn gained steam, people stopped getting their oil changed and their tires rotated with the usual frequency. Money became tight, and the truck had to go.


Then the “for sale by owner” sign appeared. A red-brick slice of the American dream, on a three-quarter-acre double lot on a quiet street, could be had for $155,000. As summer lazily drifted into fall, there were no takers, and the price dropped: A steal at $139,000.


Meanwhile, the bills had piled up at the repair shop. The parking lot, once choked with vehicles awaiting service, was now virtually empty. After two decades in business, it finally closed its doors. Within a week, the streetside sign had been repainted a flat, blank white. Dad decided he’d take $129,000 for the house.


“We’re moving to Tennessee. Back near the family. We’re going to get a little place down there,” Dad told the neighbors. And then, with the family minivan and a U-Haul truck packed to the gills with their possessions, they were gone.


The repossession notice appeared on the door shortly thereafter, followed by the realtor’s For Sale sign. A bargain at $90,000, and $1,000 moves you in. The bank’s contractors came, fixed a few sagging gutters, and hauled away the children’s disused playhouse and swingset. With that, all traces of the family disappeared from the neighborhood.


A similar scenario has been repeated two or three times since on the same block, with minor variations: A layoff here, a divorce or medical problems there, with the end result being the same echoing emptiness within vacated walls. You can tell by the unkempt lawns, the darkened and broken windows, the piled-up junk mail and the front-door repossession notices flapping in the summer breeze. With each new vacancy, with each new family abruptly written out of the block’s daily rituals, the neighborhood dies a little.


Every time you hear a conservative congressman, a Bush Administration official or a sanctimonious banker decry “bailouts” for “financially irresponsible” American homeowners, understand that it is this family and countless others like them who are being talked about.


Current asking price for a red-brick piece of the American dream: $46,000.


© 2008 North Star Writers Group. May not be republished without permission.


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