The Great Eviction: Black America and the Toll of the Foreclosure Crisis
From predatory loans to evictions at gunpoint, neighborhoods are hosting bitter conflicts between activists and market forces
We cautiously ascend the staircase, the pitch black of the boarded-up house pierced only by my companion's tiny circle of light. At the top of the landing, the flashlight beam dances in a corner as Quafin, who offered only her first name, points out the furnace. She is giddy; this house—unlike most of the other bank-owned buildings on the block—isn't completely uninhabitable.
It had been vacated, sealed, and winterized in June 2010, according to a notice on the wall posted by BAC Field Services Corporation, a division of Bank of America. It warned: "entry by unauthorized persons is strictly prohibited." But Bank of America has clearly forgotten about the house and its requirement to provide the "maintenance and security" that would ensure the property could soon be reoccupied. The basement door is ajar, the plumbing has been torn out of the walls, and the carpet is stained with water. The last family to live here bought the home for $175,000 in 2002; eight years later, the bank claimed an improbable $286,100 in past-due balances and repossessed it.
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
Since 2007, the foreclosure crisis has displaced at least 10 million people from more than four million homes across the country. Families have been evicted from colonials and bungalows, A-frames and two-family brownstones, trailers and ranches, apartment buildings and the prefabricated cookie-cutters that sprang up after World War II. The displaced are young and old, rich and poor, and of every race, ethnicity, and religion. They add up to approximately the entire population of Michigan.
However, African American neighborhoods were targeted more aggressively than others for the sort of predatory loans that led to mass evictions after the economic meltdown of 2007-2008. At the height of the rapacious lending boom, nearly 50% of all loans given to African American families were deemed "subprime." The New York Times described these contracts as "a financial time-bomb."
Over the last year and a half, I traveled through many of these neighborhoods, reporting on the grassroots movements of resistance to foreclosure and displacement that have been springing up in the wake of the explosion. These community efforts have proven creative, inspiring, and often effective—but in too many cities and towns, the landscape that forms the backdrop to such a movement of hope is one of almost overwhelming destruction. Lots filled with "Cheap Bank-Owned!" trailers line highways. Cities hire contractors dubbed "Blackwater Bailiffs" to keep pace with the dizzying eviction rate.
In recent years, the foreclosure crisis has been turning many African American communities into conflict zones, torn between a market hell-bent on commodifying life itself and communities organizing to protect their neighborhoods. The more I ventured into such areas, the more I came to realize that the clash of values going on isn't just theoretical or metaphorical.
"Internal displacement causes conflict," explained J.R. Fleming, the chairman of the Chicago Anti-Eviction Campaign. "And there's no other country in the world that would force so much internal displacement and pretend that it's something else."
Evictions at Gunpoint
It was three in the morning when at least a dozen police cruisers pulled up to the single-story, green-shuttered house in the African American Atlanta suburb where Christine Frazer and her family lived. The precise number of sheriffs and deputies who arrived is disputed; the local radio station reported 25, while Frazer recalled seeing between 40 and 50.
A locksmith drilled off the home's locks and dozens of officers burst into the house with flashlights and handguns.
"Who's in the house?" they shouted. Aside from Frazer, a widow with a vocal devotion to the Man Above, there were three other residents: her 85-year-old mother, her adult daughter, and her four-year-old grandson. Things began to happen fast. Animal control rounded up the pets. Officers told the women to get dressed. Could she take a shower? Frazer asked. Imagine there's a fire in your house, the officer replied.
"They came to my home like I was a drug dealer," she told reporters later. Over the next seven hours, the officers hauled out the entire contents of her home and cordoned off the street to prevent friends from helping her retrieve her things.
"I have no idea where some of my jewelry is, stuff I bought when I was 30 years old," said Frazer. "I am sixty-three. They just threw everything everywhere, helter-skelter on the front lawn in the dark."
The eviction-turned-raid sparked controversy across Atlanta when it occurred in the spring of 2012, in part because Frazer had a motion pending in federal court that should have stayed the eviction, and in part because she was an active participant of Occupy Homes Atlanta. But this type of militarized reaction is often the outcome when communities—especially those of color—organize to resist eviction.
When Nicole Shelton attempted to move back into her repossessed home in a picket-fence subdivision in North Carolina, the Raleigh police department sent in more than a dozen police officers and an eight-person SWAT team. Officers were equipped with M5 submachine guns. A helicopter roared overhead. In Boston, one organizer with the community group City Life/Vida Urbana remembers the police acting so aggressively at an eviction blockade in a Haitian neighborhood that the grandmother of the family had a heart attack right in the driveway.
And sometimes it doesn't require resistance at all. On the South Side of Chicago, explained Toussaint Losier, a community organizer completing his Ph.D. at the University of Chicago, "They bust in the door, and it's at the point of a gun that you get evicted."
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."