I recently found myself in a skirmish with a radio host interviewing me about foreclosures. “You’re saying these families are evicted—at gunpoint?” she asked. Six years after the housing market’s implosion, it should have been impossible to say anything shocking about this topic. Yet the realities of the crisis remain far from understood.
Since 2007 more than 10 million people have been forced from their homes through bank-pursued foreclosures. Ten million people: That’s more than 30 times the number of forty-niners who went to California in pursuit of gold. It’s four times larger than the crowd that fled the Dust Bowl in the 1930s. It’s larger than the Great Migration—the epic 55-year march of African Americans out of the Jim Crow South. For a contemporary comparison, 10 million is more than the entire population of Michigan. And when we imagine everyone in Michigan leaving their homes at the same time, it becomes easy to understand how that would never happen without the threat—direct or indirect—of a loaded gun.
Thirteen-year-old Jimmya Biggs remembers her family’s eviction from a rental building on Chicago’s West Side. It was early on a weekend morning, and she was playing with Barbie dolls in the living room with her seven-year-old sister when she heard running footsteps on the stairs, followed by pounding fists and the heavy thud of a battering ram. She peered out the window. Nearly half a dozen police cars were parked below with their lights flashing. Seven officers armed with guns and blinding flashlights entered the house. Jimmya and her sister flew into the bathroom to get dressed. Her mother and older sister began to grab clothes and haul them into the family’s minivan. A female police officer reminded Jimmya and her younger sister to put on coats and shoes since it was winter. Her three-year-old brother woke up, and her mother began to coax everyone into the car. With everyone squeezed together, the five-person family and their belongings just fit in the old minivan—which was lucky, because the vehicle became Jimmya’s home for almost two years.
Jimmya eventually moved out of the car when her mother decided enough was enough. With the help of a housing activist in Chicago, Jimmya’s mother took over a vacant Deutsche Bank–owned house on the South Side. But Jimmya is only one of millions of children displaced during the ongoing crisis. What has happened to the vast majority? No governmental agency tracks how many are evicted and what happens to them after they’re removed from their places of residence. Other statistics are available: $19.2 trillion in U.S. household wealth evaporated. Just under 9 million jobs disappeared. Multiple cities declared bankruptcy. Homelessness among children in Florida nearly doubled.
The crisis continues to reverberate nationwide. The most striking example is Detroit, where more than 100,000 foreclosures over the past decade helped push the city into the largest municipal bankruptcy in U.S. history. These foreclosures spurred a mass—and largely forced—exodus of 250,000 people. For those who remained, falling property values, combined with a shrinking population, decimated the tax base. Schools were shuttered. Streetlights went dark. The fire department, facing budget cuts, proposed letting vacant properties burn as long as the wind was right. As a U.S. district judge in New York wrote, “Detroit’s recent bankruptcy filing only emphasizes the broader consequences of predatory lending and the foreclosures that inevitably result.” Meanwhile, the city spent taxpayer money to hire private contractors to keep pace with the dizzying eviction rate. Local residents dubbed them Blackwater bailiffs.
The Obama administration declared there would be no bailout for Detroit, which is effectively the same position it has taken toward millions of Americans who have faced foreclosure since 2007. But American families are fighting back, using protests and media pressure to halt their displacement. In Atlanta, Carmen Pittman saved her grandmother’s home from foreclosure by launching a months-long eviction blockade, converting the house into a neighborhood community center. In Center Point, Alabama, Allyn Hudson lived in a tent on the front lawn of his neighbor’s in-foreclosure home for 14 weeks during the winter of 2011–2012 to pressure the bank to back down. In Toledo a man sealed himself in his home with cinder blocks, forcing the police to spend days trying to evict him. In New York City dozens of people interrupted the auctions of bank-foreclosed homes by singing in the courtrooms.
Despite these actions and reports of a housing recovery, there are still an average of 50,000 completed foreclosures every month. An additional 1 million families remain trapped in some stage of foreclosure.
The executives who orchestrated this crisis still roam the streets of Manhattan and the halls of Washington. The federal government has threatened to bring its wrath to bear against cities such as Richmond, California that are attempting to alleviate the crisis by seizing mortgages through eminent domain. It seems Standard & Poor’s is once again peddling falsely positive ratings to the banks. The New York Times recently reported that the “alchemists of Wall Street” are reviving the same dangerous mortgage bundles that led to the meltdown. And economist Dean Baker explains that the main goal of President Obama’s grand bargain to improve the housing market is really to subsidize mortgage-backed securities.
In other words, we’ve learned nothing from the recent crisis—except, perhaps, that trying to live in the United States is an increasingly risky business.
Laura Gottesdiener is author of A Dream Foreclosed: Black America and the Fight for a Place to Call Home.