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Florida Families Grapple With Foreclosures


I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Coming up, the United Nations Project gets a report on its progress in combating global problems such as poverty, hunger and AIDS, a spirited debate about the U.N. Summit on Millennium Development Goals. We'll have that in a few minutes.

But first, we just heard a discussion about government policies designed to stimulate the economy, but the future of tax cuts or other economic policies does not change the fact that 2.3 million people have lost their homes since the start of the recession in December 2007.

In hard-hit states like Nevada and Florida, the foreclosure crisis has hit like a neutron bomb. Former homeowners have left, but the empty houses remain.

Paul Reyes describes foreclosures as the family business. His stepmother is a real estate agent who works with banks on foreclosed properties. His father owns a small business that cleans up the houses that are then put back on the market. Reyes, a writer, often works as part of the clean-up crew.

And as the housing market sunk, the work shot up, and he recently wrote a books called "Exiles in Eden: Life Among the Ruins of Florida's Great Recession." And he's with us now to talk more about what that housing crisis actually looks like up close. Thanks so much for joining us.

PAUL REYES: Good to be with you.

MARTIN: And as we mentioned, you have a really unique perspective on this. Your dad's job, and you've been helping him with this, is literally to clean out the houses of homeowners who've been evicted. Could you just describe just the range of things that you've seen?

REYES: Well, as you can imagine, it's a wide range of discoveries. I mean, it's everything from houses that have been abandoned for so long that everything inside has begun to rot in the Florida heat, overtaken by fleas, and sometimes we've found snakes inside refrigerators.

But most of what we find, of course, is mementos, letters, various pieces of evidence that allowed me to piece together who these people were and how they lost their home.

MARTIN: And who were they?

REYES: It's everyone. I mean, it's a completely egalitarian crisis. Of course, it has done more damage to the working class and to the middle class and to the poor, but it really does include all types.

MARTIN: You describe a truly terrible experience that your father had one eviction where a middle-aged man answered. Your father remembers that he seemed unsurprised at the news, but he asked for a minute or two, and then something truly awful happened.

REYES: Yeah, they showed up with the sheriff and then, as you said, asked for a minute, went back to the bedroom and shot himself. And of course, that was the last time my father saw that house since it became immediately a crime scene.

It's funny, the stories of suicides, just like the Great Depression, started to creep up around 2008 and 2009. I don't think that they were as widespread as we feared they would be, but they certainly did happen and in dramatic fashion.

MARTIN: I'm going to move on because unfortunately I know more about this than I wish I did. So I'm going to ask you how that experience affected your father.

REYES: Well, it rattled him, of course. And, you know, the job in general is a sad one. In discovering this for the first time myself, it was an overwhelming experience to come into these houses and to have this kind of intimate detail at your disposal without really the owner's permission, so to speak.

And that was the intent of the book was to basically honor these people and to put a face to the crisis.

MARTIN: What do you think is going to happen next based on what you've seen? I'm just wondering, do you imagine lives going forward from the houses that you cleaned out? What does your writer's eye see?

REYES: You know, for the most part, lives do go forward, and they move forward slowly, and it's a struggle. Across the board, nationwide, I don't see really any truly imaginative solutions to the problem.

There are some discussions about various nuclear options, debt forgiveness being one. But I don't really see anything out there that addresses how to keep people in their homes.

MARTIN: Is there an image that you would wish policymakers would keep in mind? Is there a particular couple or family that you met? Is there a particular house that you saw, I mean, in addition to this poor man who took his own life when your father was there with the sheriff? You know, obviously one would want people to think about that. But is there something else?

REYES: We talked about the deacon briefly, and I'll mention a little bit more about him. He was a fellow who went to prison for a while, found God, obviously became a deacon afterwards and bought a home, fell into a refinancing trap, lost his home, and we cleaned it out.

MARTIN: Do you want to be - would you buy a house again after all that you'd been through? And he said of course, and in fact, I have my eye on one right now. So it's that kind of resilience.

MARTIN: Interesting. Is it resilience, or is it - what is it that Samuel Johnson wrote about marriage, it's the triumph of hope over experience?

REYES: Well, but see at the same time, having been manipulated to the degree that he was manipulated, and having been as ignorant as he was about how these loans and how a mortgage works, look, he was angry, understandably, but he also admitted part of the responsibility was his.

MARTIN: The thing that I would do differently is I would be obviously walking into that situation a little wiser. He said, you know, I don't want to put it all on them. A lot of it was their fault, but some of it was my fault, too.

So in accepting that responsibility and wanting to own a home, it speaks to that desire, which is genuine. The problem is it just ran away from us.

MARTIN: Paul Reyes is the author of "Exiles in Eden: Life Among the Ruins of Florida's Great Recession." And he was with us from member station WLRN in Miami, Florida. Paul Reyes, thanks so much for joining us.

REYES: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.