Back in May of 2007 my company started working on a documentary, "Foreclosure Diaries," detailing a crisis that was only beginning to make itself felt. We spent time in what was then the epicenter of the foreclosure crisis; a devastated neighborhood in Cleveland known as Slavic Village. Stripped bare of habitable housing, this once bustling blue collar area was an eerie tableaux of vacant, ramshackle homes; allowed to deteriorate by outside investors who had bought and sold foreclosures, en masse, aiming to profit from a quick flip to other sets of investors; all to feed the endless appetite of Wall Street's securitization magog.
We traveled along with Cleveland Deputy Sheriff David Rowe. He was one of several law enforcement officials assigned to carry out court-ordered evictions. Clearly, it was a job he didn't relish. Driving past the wasteland of poverty embraced Slavic Village, we ended up in front of a rather kempt and tidy middle-class home; relatively new construction, in a clearly upscale neighborhood. There were movers and deputies standing by an open front door; waiting for Rowe's arrival. He beckoned us into the house. Rowe could have been a realtor straight out of an episode of House Hunters, but once through the door; whatever curb appeal existed quickly evaporated. Inside was life frozen in place; a family had been there one minute; gone the next. Clothes were scattered about; food left uneaten; but, most poignantly, a memory of what once was: wedding pictures of a happy couple, conveying cheery optimism for a now blighted future. There was also a posed photo of a young boy; their son, I guess; wearing the kind of smile that’s usually coaxed out by a skilled department store photographer. That photo, tragically, lay among the refuse of abandoned toys.
On the way back the sheriff tried hard to keep his feelings contained; clearly he couldn't. He choked up; talking about the obligation he felt to make sure that those chucked out would have some assistance; and that included pets. "It could be your grandmother, or mine," he related, bitterly, when discussing an incident involving a disoriented octogenarian who looked lost when handed an eviction notice.
In the midst of the endless seasonal re-runs of "A Christmas Carol," there's no shortage of foreclosure Scrooges. Take Mitt Romney’s Darwinian moment in October, when he clued in a gathered Arizona crowd on how he would handle the housing crisis: "don't try and stop the foreclosure process. Let it run its course and hit the bottom." Sad that this was said in a state with one of the highest foreclosure rates in the country. But if there was any enthusiasm in that crowd, it certainly wasn't shared by those who've already had their hard falls to rock bottom.
I'm thinking about a recent Sixty Minutes story where rock bottom for many foreclosed Floridians translated into not so comfy digs of the four-wheeled variety: your automobile or, perhaps a truck fitted out with a bed and rudimentary kitchen. A fifteen year old, who inhabited the aforementioned truck along with a brother and out-of-work father showed strength of character well beyond her years, expressing the notion that she and her family would get through these tough times. For me, she flipped the Christmas equation over to the bright side; where you're hoping — expecting — some sort of Hallmark resolution offered to warm the cockles of those with heart and an operable set of compassionate genes. In some small way that Hallmark card emerged from the deck when Atlanta sheriff's deputies refused to carry out a bank ordered eviction of 103 year old woman (my emphasis); and her 83 year old daughter!! (my emphasis, again). You can't make this stuff up; and in the wake of the the story; poor old scrooge, in the form of Deutsche Bank, faced a well-deserved tsunami of sturm und drang from outraged 99 percenters.
December 6 marks the beginning of a campaign to highlight the foreclosure crisis. Occupy groups along with community organizations will begin to locate vacant foreclosed homes throughout the nation, then reunite them with their evicted families. Sure, it's a great media op; but it does presage what many believe will become this generation's great civil rights campaign: housing as a human right.
There's something like 28% of homeowners in this country drowning in negative equity. Why haven’t they become more vocal? Perhaps it's feelings of shame and denial; a struggle to keep an ugly and embarrassing secret, trying to keep an "everything's all right and normal" attitude while missing one, two, or more mortgage payments. However, when more of this silent segment examines the options: homeless shelters; the family car; I bet the banks will feast their eyes on a spectacle worthy of Houdini as large numbers of middle-class homeowners twist their way out of their shackles of shame. At that point, I believe, OWS will be there helping to channel their angry energy for an agenda driven goal: a nationwide foreclosure moratorium.
Joel Sucher is a filmmaker with Pacific Street Films in Hastings-on-Hudson, N.Y.