10 Million Americans Have Had Their Homes Taken Away by the Banks -- Often at the Point of a Gun
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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.”
The double standards in property maintenance lead to an “extremely troubling” trend in home sales: these uninviting neglected houses, disproportionately located in communities of color, are most often being snapped up by investors rather than families. Overwhelmingly, the investor of choice is the Blackstone Group, one of the world’s largest private equity firms and now the nation’s largest owner of single-family homes. Since April 2012, Blackstone has spent more than $4.5 billion buying at least 30,000 houses concentrated in cities hard-hit by foreclosure, including Atlanta, Jacksonville, Orlando, Chicago, Charlotte, Phoenix, and urban areas across California. According to local real estate brokers, the company often makes its purchases in cash.
The idea is that there’s big money to be made in rental properties these days, given that there are millions of displaced, former homeowners with wrecked credit scores looking for places to stay. It’s like a pay-to-play game of musical chairs -- except Wall Street owns the stereo, the speakers, the chairs, and the roof, and somehow when the music stops you’re always out.
Vacant houses, whether owned by banks or Blackstone, create foreclosure spirals, each vacant house dragging down the property values of neighbors, which, in turn, decreases a city’s property tax revenue and the capacity of local government to provide essential services. Shuttered schools in Philadelphia and Chicago. Closed hospitals in Cleveland. Slashed senior programs in Baltimore. All of these essential services, eliminated far more often in communities of color, are the collateral damage of the foreclosure crisis.
A 2011 report by the U.S. Government Accountability Office, submitted to the House Subcommittee on Regulatory Affairs, cited nearly a dozen examples of how such declines in tax revenues caused by vacancies have led cities to cut funding for public works, libraries, parks, recreation programs, and school districts. One city even cut a program intended to address vacant foreclosed properties, thanks to a tax revenue shortfall.
The final dystopian outcome of this spiral is what journalist Naomi Klein famously termed the shock doctrine: a crisis is pushed so far that it finally justifies dramatic outside intervention (read: privatization). It’s the type of outcome we’re currently seeing in Michigan, where, according to a court rulinglast week, "Detroit’s recent bankruptcy filing only emphasizes the broader consequences of predatory lending and the foreclosures that inevitably result." That city may be undergoing the largest municipal bankruptcy in U.S. history, but unlike when the big banks and giant financial outfits teetered at the edge of collapse, President Obama has made it clear that this time there will be no billion-dollar federal bailout.
“With the mass displacement, it ends up being a situation where people are just like, ‘Well, we’ll just have to bulldoze those homes,’” Chicago organizer Toussaint Losier told me. “They become sacrifice zones rather than places where people bring imaginative solutions.”