US: The Great Eviction

Published on ZNet (first on TomDispatch), by Laura Gottesdiener, August 02, 2013.

… It’s May 2012 and we’re in Woodlawn, a largely African American neighborhood on the South Side of Chicago. The crew Quafin is a part of dubbed themselves the HIT Squad, short for Housing Identification and Target. Their goal is to map blighted, bank-owned homes with overdue property taxes and neighbors angry enough about the destruction of their neighborhood to consider supporting a plan to repossess on the repossessors.  

“Anything I can do,” one woman tells the group after being briefed on its plan to rehab bank-owned homes and move in families without houses. She points across the street to a sagging, boarded-up place adorned with a worn banner — “Grandma’s House Child Care: Register Now!” — and a disconnected number. There are 20 banked-owned homes like it in a five-block radius. Records showed that at least five of them were years past due on their property taxes.

Where exterior walls once were, some houses sport charred holes from fires lit by people trying to stay warm. In 2011, two Chicago firefighters died trying to extinguish such a fire at a vacant foreclosed building. Now, houses across the South Side are pockmarked with red Xs, indicating places the fire department believes to be structurally unsound. In other states — Wisconsin, Minnesota, and New York, to name recent examples — foreclosed houses have taken to exploding after bank contractors forgot to turn off the gas.

Most of the occupied homes in the neighborhood we’re visiting display small signs: “Don’t shoot,” they read in lettering superimposed on a child’s face, “I want to grow up.” On the bank-owned houses, such signs have been replaced by heavy-duty steel window guards. (“We work with all types of servicers, receivers, property management, and bank asset managers, enabling you to quickly and easily secure your building so you can move on,” boasts Door and Window Guard Systems, a leading company in the burgeoning “building security industry.”)

The dangerous houses are the ones left unsecured, littered with trash and empty Cobra vodka bottles. We approach one that reeks of rancid tuna fish and attempt to push open the basement door, held closed only by a flimsy wire. The next-door neighbor, returning home, asks: “Did you know they killed someone in that backyard just this morning?”

The Equivalent of the Population of Michigan Foreclosed: … //

… Evictions at Gunpoint: … //

… Exiles in America:

  • There have been widespread foreclosures — and some organized resistance — in predominately white communities, too. Kevin Kirkman, captain of the civil division of the Lee County sheriff’s office, explained, “I get so many [eviction] papers in here, it’s unbelievable.”
  • More than 75% of the residents in North Carolina’s Lee County are whites. But Kirkman still sees the ripple effects of mass foreclosure here. “You’re talking about a mudslide where a lot of things are affected. You’re talking about taxes, about retail sales if people move, about food services, about gasoline. You see what I’m talking about? When you lose a family in the community? Some people leave the community. I have seen people leave the state of North Carolina.”
  • He added, “I’m going be honest with you, my feeling is that I would not do these evictions.”
  • Still, the difficulties white America has faced during the foreclosure crisis don’t compare with what Wall Street and the banks have inflicted, physically and psychologically, on African American neighborhoods. As countless leaked documents, insider dispositions, and Department of Justice filings demonstrate, those neighborhoods were systematically and illegally targeted for the worst of the worst mortgages. As one former Wells Fargo mortgage broker explained in a sworn affidavit, “The company put ‘bounties’ on minority borrowers. By this I mean that loan officers received cash incentives to aggressively market subprime loans in minority communities.”
  • This pushing of predatory loans was all the more insidious because these same communities had been starved of mortgages for decades as a result of the Federal Housing Authority’s refusal to guarantee loans in communities of color. As Mike Fannon, development associate for the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History in Detroit, explained, “The same banks that denied capital now injected too much toxic capital and decimated the local economy.”
  • The effect, according to a 2012 National Fair Housing Alliance report, has been “the largest loss of wealth for these communities in modern history.” Between 2009 and 2012 African Americans lost just under $200 billion in wealth, bringing the gap between white and black wealth to a staggering 20:1 ratio.
  • There is also a longer trajectory of racial exclusion at play here, a history that makes the foreclosure crisis yet another chapter in an epic and enduring quest for home. From enslavement to sharecropping, redlining to restrictive covenants, the United States has too often been an inhospitable land for people of color. Fifty years ago, Martin Luther King echoed W.E.B. Dubois in declaring that the African American still “finds himself in exile in his own land.” Today, it’s hard not to see that reality painted across the 2010 census data, where the maps measuring the concentration of vacant houses and the maps measuring the concentration of African Americans, while not exactly the same, are uncomfortably close to a match.
  • As Ben Austen wrote in the New York Times Magazine, “The U.S. Postal Service, which tracks these numbers, reported that 62,000 properties in Chicago were vacant at the end of last year, with two-thirds of them clustered as if to form a sinkhole in just a few black neighborhoods on the South and West Sides.” The same phenomenon holds true in cities across the country. And once a house is empty in such neighborhoods, all too often, no one is moving back in.

Crime Starts at the Top:

  • “There were feces in the basement, urine, rolled-up carpet,” said Thomas Turner, a housing activist in Chicago describing the inside of a foreclosed home, once owned, according to neighbors, by an 80-year-old man. Under the ownership of the Pittsburgh-based bank PNC, Turner explained, “It was abandoned for six years, so squatters and strippers had punched holes in the walls. There was no toilet, no tub, all the kitchen cabinets were torn out. The bedroom looked like someone had taken a sledgehammer and just started swinging… I still see gang members on the front porch or rolling up real slow in the car.”
  • Another Chicago resident, Erica Johnson, described a vacant home similarly. “There were clothes, books, broken dressers, little white drug bags, used condoms,” she said. “It was a little drug house, and they were probably bringing their girls up in here.”
  • Some foreclosed homes become brothels, such as a Deutsche Bank-owned house in South Los Angeles where the girls’ names and prices were scrawled in blue marker across the upstairs walls. Others become meth labs or gang hideouts.
  • These bank-owned vacant houses help spread crime and poverty in already distressed communities — a reality that became obvious to me when I accompanied Dorian Morris, a certified building inspector, on one of his surveys of the vacant homes on the north side of Minneapolis. Signs on nearly every home advertised the severity of the housing crisis in this area: neon green “no trespassing” stickers on boarded-up foreclosed homes and red “stand together, stop foreclosure” posters on places supporting Occupy Homes Minneapolis. On more than a dozen lots, the only indication that a family once lived there was a skinny red metal rod marking the spot where a razed house once stood.
  • As in other hard-hit African American neighborhoods across the country, residents here had organized to stop bank-pursued evictions from stripping the value from the community. Neighborhood support had, for instance, helped a mother named Monique White beat her eviction in a highly publicized six-month battle against US Bank only weeks before I arrived. Still, the never-ending evictions were eating away at the stability of the neighborhood.
  • “That’s a known crack house,” said Morris, as he pointed at a brick structure less than 100 meters away from a neighborhood park. More than half the homes within sight were boarded up with plywood. Within five minutes, we had passed two former residences he identified as current drug houses and a handful more that he said had already been raided by the police — all foreclosed homes where families used to live.
  • As we drove, we discussed the illegal chain of events that transformed these homes into drug dens. The crimes started at the top. Banks peddled toxic mortgages like crack, paying employees cash incentives to push them in African American neighborhoods. The loans exploded, so they forged millions of foreclosure affidavits to speed state-enforced evictions.
  • Once homes are vacant, bank contractors insufficiently seal and maintain them, allowing intruders to strip the houses of their copper wiring, plumbing, and sometimes even the furnace. The copper alone sells for anywhere from 50 cents to a dollar per pound. Finally, people dealing drugs begin to use the houses at night as distribution centers. The street-level crime drags down neighboring property values, spurring more foreclosures and evictions. And so the cycle continues.
  • Banks are legally obligated to maintain and market their foreclosed properties, but they often shirk those responsibilities — especially in communities of color. In an investigation of more than 1,000 homes across the country, the National Fair Housing Alliance found that bank-owned homes in communities of color were more likely than homes in white neighborhoods to have graffiti and peeling paint on the exterior, trash and dead leaves strewn across the sidewalk, unsecured locks on the doors, and be missing “for sale” signs on their front lawns.
  • Foreclosed houses in such neighborhoods were also 80% more likely to have a broken or boarded-up window, and 30% more likely to have trash on the front lawn. After a lawsuit, Wells Fargo paid $42 million to settle charges of racially discriminatory maintenance; there’s scant evidence to suggest the practice has changed since. Cities have increased fines levied against banks that don’t maintain their houses, but not a single bank has been held accountable for drug dealing, murders, and rapes that occur on their unmaintained or poorly maintained properties. The only “crime” they appear concerned about is when community activists try to fix up such homes and move families in — doing the job the bank was supposed to do in the first place. Then banks call the police to arrest the “trespassers.”

Sacrifice Zones: … //

… The Shield and the Sword: … //

… (full long text).

(Laura Gottesdiener is a journalist, social justice activist, and author of A Dream Foreclosed: Black America and the Fight for a Place to Call Home, published this month by Zuccotti Park Press. She is an associate editor for Waging Nonviolence, and she has written for Rolling Stone, Ms. magazine, the Arizona Republic, AlterNet, and other publications. This is her first TomDispatch piece. She lived and worked in the People’s Kitchen during the occupation of Zuccotti Park. This article first appeared on TomDispatch.com, a weblog of the Nation Institute, which offers a steady flow of alternate sources, news, and opinion from Tom Engelhardt, long time editor in publishing, co-founder of the American Empire Project, author of The End of Victory Culture, as of a novel, The Last Days of Publishing. His latest book is The American Way of War: How Bush’s Wars Became Obama’s, Haymarket Books).

Links:

Birth Rate Boon? Germany Promises Daycare for All, on Spiegel Online International, by Friederike Heine, August 01, 2013
(Photo Gallery): http://www.spiegel.de/fotostrecke/photo-gallery-germany-s-daycare-experiment-fotostrecke-99792.html
A new law went into effect in Germany on Thursday guaranteeing every child over 12 months of age a slot at a daycare facility. The government hopes the policy will help reverse one of Europe’s lowest birth rates …;
Photo 5/5: Birthrate by country in Europe 2010, on Spiegel Online International, by Friederike Heine, August 01, 2013.

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