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<nettime> my job is to watch dreams die
nettime's_roving_reporter on Sun, 4 Sep 2011 17:53:41 +0200 (CEST)

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<nettime> my job is to watch dreams die


I work at a real estate office. We primarily sell houses that were
foreclosed on by lenders. We aren't involved in the actual foreclosures or
evictions - anonymous lawyers in the cloud somewhere is tasked with the
paperwork - we are the boots on the ground that interacts with the actual
walls, roofs and occasional bomb threat.

When the lender forecloses - or is thinking of foreclosing - on a property
one of the first things that happens is they send somebody out to see if
there is actually a house there and if there is anybody living there who
needs to be evicted. Lawyers are expensive so they send a real estate agent
or a property preservation company out to check. There is the occasional
discovery of fraud where there was never a house on the parcel to begin
with, but such instances are rare. Sometimes this initial visit results in
discovering a house that has burned down or demolished, is abandoned or
occupied by somebody who has absolutely no connection with the homeowner.
Sometimes the houses are discovered to be crack dens or meth labs,
sometimes the sites of cock or dog fighting operations, or you might even
find a back yard filled with a pot cultivation that can't be traced back to
anybody because it was planted in yet another vacant house in a blighted
neighborhood. The house could be worth less than zero - blighted to the
point where you can't even give it away (this is a literal statement, I
have tried to give away many houses or even vacant lots with no takers over
the years) or it could be a waterfront mansion in a gated golf community
worth well over seven figures that does not include the number "one".
Sometimes they are found to have been seized by the IRS, the local tax
authority, the DEA or the US Marshal. Variety is the rule. The end results
are the law.

If the house is occupied my job is to make contact and determine who they
are: there are laws that establish what happens to a borrower as opposed to
a tenant and the servicemember relief act adds an additional set of
questions that must be answered. Some of the people have an idea of why I
am there. Some claim they never knew they were foreclosed on, or tell me
that they have worked something out with their lender, some won't tell me a
thing and some threaten me to never return in the name of the police, their
lawyer, or the occasional "or else/if I were you". During one initial visit
the sight of 50-60 motorcycles parked on the lawn suggested that we try
again the next day. At a couple the police had cordoned off the area and at
one they were in the process of dredging the lake searching for the body of
a depressed former homeowner.

If nobody is home I have to determine if they are at work, on vacation, in
the army, wintering/summering at their other home, in jail, in a nursing
home, dead or if they moved away. It isn't easy. Utilities can be left on
for months. Neighbors can be staging the yard and house to appear occupied
to prevent blight in their neighborhood. By the same token people will stop
cutting the lawn for months, let trash and old phone books pile up on their
porch, lose gas and electric service and continue to live in properties
that have not only physically unsafe to approach but are so filthy that
when it comes time to clean them out the crews have to wear hazmat suits.
One house had a gallon pickle jar filled with dead roaches on the porch.
Somebody lived in that house and thought that was a logical thing to do.
People like me are tasked with first contact.

Evictions are expensive and time-consuming. Ultimately once the process
gets that far there isn't much that can be done to prevent it. You didn't
pay your mortgage, the lender gets the house back. There are an infinite
number of reasons why the mortgage couldn't be paid, some are more
sympathetic than others, but in the end you will be leaving the property
willingly or not. The lawyers handle the evictions - they churn through the
paperwork in the background, ten thousand properties at a time. They have
it down to rote function based on templates, personal experience with the
various judges and intimate knowledge of the federal, state and municipal
laws, along with dealing with the occasional sheriff who refuses to evict
somebody, the informal policies established by the local judges and a
myriad of other problems that can arise. As a business decision many
lenders have determined that it is cheaper to settle with the occupants -
instead of going through the formal eviction they will offer cash. In
exchange for surrendering a property in reasonably clean condition with the
furnace still hooked up, the kitchen not stripped and the basement not
intentionally flooded the lender will cut the occupants a check. It costs
much less than an eviction, provides reasonable hope that the plumbing
won't freeze and can take a fraction of the time to obtain possession. This
is where the personal element becomes real.

Some people jump at the chance. They don't want to live here anymore. They
may be getting married and moving in but couldn't sell the unneeded house.
They have a new job across the country, they're moving to the other side of
the planet. They were renting and found a better place in a neighborhood
where the thieves don't grin at them through the kitchen window while they
disconnect a running air conditioner knowing that the average response time
for the police is measured in weeks for a call like that. The cash is a
down payment, a security deposit (since their landlord never returns
theirs), or maybe a moving van. These are the best cases. Sometimes they
are happy to hear from me. Other times, not so much.

When I make first contact and explain that the lender is offering them
money to leave sometimes they tell me that they haven't slept for months,
knowing that something was going to happen but never knowing if tomorrow
was the day when somebody kicked in their door and threw their kids out on
the lawn. Their lenders won't tell them anything, they have nothing to go
on but horror stories from other people that they never knew. It never
occurred to them that they should call an attorney and ask what was going
on. I can be the first people to discuss their situation who isn't a debt
collector: you can hear the release of a massive weight in their voice. It
isn't much, but at least it is something.

Or they can get angry and defensive, tell me that they were never
foreclosed on, tell me that I am trespassing and owe them $5,000 in "land
use fees" for "using" their property as I walk to the front door. They
threaten to sue, they threaten to call the cops, they say I should look
under my car before I start it from now on. They send letters written in
various forms of English - one time scribed in crayon - detailing their
rights and how I am violating some maritime treaty from the 1700s. In my
travels I have learned that if you copyright your name you can't be named
in any kind of legal action, if you never write down your ZIP code then you
aren't a resident of the United States and that if I tell somebody that
their lender is offering them money to vacate while leaving the staircase
(yes, these get stolen) and driveway (yes, these get stolen) in place then
I am guilty of slave trading under some United Nations something or other.

For those who reject the deal, nothing changes. They don't lose any rights
and it isn't counted against them in any way - neither the lawyers nor the
courts care because the lenders don't have to offer anything - the eviction
process continues. I listen to the stories why they can't/won't take the
deal. They can't afford anything else. They don't have anywhere else to go.
They want to make the eviction as expensive as possible. They're going to
get "a big settlement" from some vague lawsuit any day now. They want their
kids to finish out the school year. They intend to take the furnace as soon
as they find a new house. All kinds of reasons. Some are heartbreaking,
others not so much.

For those who do take the deal, at the appointed date and time I meet them
at their former home. I walk the yard and enter every room. I open every
drawer and cupboard making sure the house is clean and doesn't have old
engines, toxic chemicals or dead dogs lingering anywhere. Sometimes the
kids are there, maybe waiting in the car, maybe not. I see the marks on the
wall showing how the kids grew over the years. I see the anguished poetry
scribbled on the wall by stoned teenagers and the occasional hole punched
in the wall. One woman handed me the key to her reinforced bedroom door -
during the divorce her now ex-husband was still living in the house and she
had to barricade herself in at night. Another said "right there is where I
found my son - he couldn't handle losing the house".

Sometimes they don't want the money and don't want to be evicted so they
sign a waiver stating that everything left inside can be disposed of.
Hospital beds. Oxygen tanks and wheelchairs. Hundreds of boxes of shoes. A
mannequin. A 2nd grader's homework portfolio. A wedding album filled with
pictures with one person torn out. Get rich quick "business plans". 40
years worth of drafting documents. To the lenders and the lawyers, these
things don't exist - they close the file and order a trashout. Sometimes I
linger as I check the basement for mold and lead. I am the final period on
so many significant chapters. To most other people it is just part of the
job but in so many other universes this is where I ended up. There is no
difference between myself and these people other than the intangible twists
of experience.

And so I listen. I feign dispassion but I'm not fooling anybody. Somehow
they can tell that I care and thank me even as they admit that it isn't my
fault, that it isn't my responsibility to listen. I've stood inside
another's dream for an hour as they spoke, not really to be heard but to
say goodbye - to leave the ghosts behind.

They go to the car and return with the openers.

The keys are peeled from a ring.

They thank me. Sometimes they cry.

And they're gone.

I wait for their car to vanish before I put up the sign. To most everybody
else it is just another house on just another block in just another city in
just another financial catastrophe.

But I was there. I saw the dream end.

But at least I don't make them turn out the lights one last time as they

That's my job.

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