Paul Reyes begins his new book, EXILES IN EDEN: LIFE AMONG THE RUINS OF FLORIDA'S GREAT RECESSION, with an explanation of what it means to "trash out" a house. It is "a phrase we use to describe the process of entering a home that has been foreclosed upon by the bank, and which the bank would like to sell, and hauling all of what the dispossessed owner has left behind to the nearest dump, then returning to clean the place by spraying every fingerprint, scrubbing the boot marks off the linoleum, bleaching the cruddy toilets, sweeping up the hair and sand and dust, steaming the stains out of the carpet (or, if the carpet is unsalvageably rancid, tearing it out), and eventually, thereby, erasing all traces of whoever lived there, dispensing with both their physical presence and the ugly aura of eviction...None of the stories my father shares about this work—and certainly none that I can tell—are uplifting."
What follows in the book is an account of the three years, from 2008–2010, Reyes spent working for and writing about his father's small company, trashing out nearly one hundred homes in and around Tampa, Florida, at the height of the foreclosure crisis. A journalist (and former OA senior editor), Reyes did the work while down and out and in between freelance gigs for HARPER'S, the NEW YORK TIMES, and other publications. The book—part report on the recession, part essay on the shriveled and sunburned soul of Florida—brings us inside the homes at the heart of the crash. He meets an out-of-work trucker who bought a bungalow for $80,000 and now owes about $220,000 on it; he follows members of a Miami family as they are evicted from their property and then move back in to squat their own home. After cleaning out an ex-con-cum-church-deacon's fetid and foreclosed property, Reyes tracks him down to piece together the man's story. They meet at Denny's, where the deacon appears to be homeless, and doesn't seem to understand that Reyes is both a writer and one of the people who helped evict him. "I tried to explain again who I was and my purpose, and that I was at his home with the crew," Reyes writes:
"If there's stuff left over, they'll let you come get it," I said. "I could try and find out if there's stuff left over, if you want."
"Nah. I'm trying to move on. I'm fitting to start a job. A car wash."
"Where are you staying?"
"Wherever I wanna."
Investigative journalists have tried since the crisis began to name names and untangle the chain of subprime mortgages, collateralized debt swaps, and financial frauds that led to unprecedented numbers of mortgage foreclosures from 2007 to 2010. (Lest we think the disaster is over, there were 277,073 foreclosure filings in Florida during the first half of 2010, up three percent from the first half of 2009.) But beyond the numbers, Reyes wants to show us, as he puts it in his interview with us, not just the economy of the crisis but its ecology, its characters, its sights and smells. "You can look at patterns in the figures and do the math," he says. "But the numbers can only tell part of the story. What interested me was the remainder."
Recently, The OXFORD AMERICAN spoke with Reyes about his work trashing out homes, his own real-estate follies, and the disturbing things you find when digging through people's abandoned possessions.
THE OXFORD AMERICAN: What was the most interesting thing you took from a house you trashed out?
Paul Reyes: I found a diary of madness.
THE OA: A diary of what?
PR: A diary of madness.
THE OA: Like an actual one?
PR: Yes. I found this one woman who had kept a journal and, either she was taking care of someone in the home or there was someone else in the home who was incapacitated and she was taking care of them, and it was either that or something along those lines. But, there was a journal in which this person just started scribbling. The journal just had these entries that became more and more insane over time, and more just sort of raving, and lunatic. It was chilling to read. And, of course, they had the capacity to write these thoughts down, but the thoughts themselves were just spinning out of control. I don't know what that person's relationship was to the house. They could've been someone who had been taken care of in the house; it could have been the homeowner herself. That was a little upsetting.
My dad found the most interesting stuff. And that's what intrigued me. His stories are just out of hand. I mean, physically evicting this guy and putting all his stuff out on the curb, but the guy being really friendly about it, and he was this pot dealer who owed all these people money. And they asked him, "Is there any place you want us to take this for you?" And he said, "No, just leave it there. I'll come get it later." And they put it on the right of way, they take off, and my dad gets a call like a day later from the fire department because there's a number on the door that leads back to my dad, and it turns out this guy had owed people so much money that when they found his stuff on the side of the road, they just set it on fire. So then we go back there to check this whole thing out, it's raining that day, and the guy pulls up on a bicycle. They're sitting there, the fire department guy comes back, and the guy pulls up on his bicycle and just shrugs and rides away.
THE OA: For people who haven't read your book, could you describe what the inside of some of these homes look like?
PR: The foreclosures would range from these little bungalows in ghettos where, because of the amount of stuff that was in there rotting—furniture and food and clothing and toys and pictures—the smell was just awful. It's shocking because in the final days this person spent in this home before they evacuated it for good, they were living in that cluttered atmosphere. And, to me, it seems like this mental unraveling and that's manifested in how disheveled the house was. And, of course, this is in a neighborhood where you're not necessarily welcome—you add a little bit of that tension to the sadness of entering this home. On the other end, you have the equally creepy suburban cookie-cutter house that is all-but-empty except for a few things that are piled in a corner—maybe it's Christmas wrapping or maybe it's a stack of magazines—and the house is tidy in an eerie way. There's all of this raw space. I mean, you can see this ambition from just raw square footage and these are such expensive homes. And these neighborhoods are nauseatingly redundant subdivisions. And then you go back to that same subdivision a week or two later, and there's another one that looks exactly like the one that you cleaned out before, but it's across the street or it's two doors down. So there's something very surreal in that end of it, too.
If there was a particular house that was emblematic of most of the rest of them, though, it would be one in a blue-collar middle-class neighborhood, two bedroom, two bath, evidence of children, and there would be signs of having indulged a little bit in that middle class-ness, whether with a satellite dish on the roof or, in some cases, a big-screen TV. I guess the thing that they all shared was that deterioration, and the smell. They all had that same odor. They were all cousins of one another in that really primal way.
THE OA: How did you get started doing this kind of work?
PR: When I started doing this with my dad right after graduate school, '98–'99, after I'd moved home and was saving money and working for him, which was something I'd always done as a kid, we'd trash out houses. That's when I knew what this job was, it's when I was introduced to it, and in keeping in touch with him over the years as I moved on to other jobs and a career in journalism, you know, I'd visit in between writing gigs, would work for him, every now and then, and I was always interested in following him out on a job to visit one of these houses because I knew there was going to be some extraordinary set of circumstances behind it, whether it was someone who had tried to start a daycare center in their home and we would just walk into a house and the backyard would be literally just piles and piles and piles of toys. Or whether it was someone who left dogs, left a pack of dogs behind that had kind of taken over the place. So these extreme circumstances were always there. It's just that in talking with my father over the years and inquiring about the houses, it wasn't until about 2006 or 2007 that he began to make comments about just how busy he was, and how overwhelmed he was and his sense that something really bad was happening, because the scale was changing and the number of problems was such that they just couldn't process them. They couldn't work through them. And that's when we knew that it reflected something bigger and meaner than what it reflected before. That's when we knew that the word crisis was becoming appropriate.
THE OA: For a book that's very dark and dismal in a lot of ways, you actually write very beautifully about nature. You call foreclosures "a marvelous natural phenomenon." Could you explain that a bit more?
PR: I remember this one particular house in the outskirts of a neighborhood called Seminole Heights, where you could see the old charm of the place and how mismanagement by the city has led to that becoming a ghetto. And that is certainly the story, over and over again in a city like Tampa, and in many cities across the country. But at the same time, part of what made that dilapidated historic neighborhood so beautiful in its rough way since the last couple years, and certainly in a pristine way many years ago, was the intersection of these houses and man's presence in nature. And these are beautiful natural settings. But having this wonderful, sublime moment out there in the sun-dappled yard under these live oaks with hanging Spanish moss there's a juxtaposition with the rank atmosphere of this closed-up house and the rot that had been trapped inside. That's part of the irony of the book's title—that there was this idea of Florida as an Eden and as a paradise, and then there was the actual land that people settled. And that doesn't mean that we should toss aside this sort of idyllic perception of it. It's impossible to extract it. It's impossible to remove it altogether from the Florida formula.
THE OA: What does your experience tell us about home ownership in America today?
PR: Certainly the home is, for me personally and for millions of other Americans, a central part of American culture. My generation was taught that home ownership is one of the rites of adulthood. This is why I own a home in Little Rock, Arkansas, that is under water and was—I realize now reflecting on it—a bad decision. I was in my mid-thirties and still renting and somewhat humiliated by the fact that I was under the thumb of a landlord—he was a kind landlord, don't get me wrong—but still, not independent to the extent that I would have been had I owned my own home. And there is a sense of pride in taking on that responsibility. Whether or not I was prepared for it, or should have bought a home when I did, remains to be seen. It remains to be seen whether or not I keep it or lose it.
But for many generations, buying a home was a really good idea, because of job stability. You could hang on to a job for ten or twenty years, you could stay in one place. Once the marketplace changed, our relationship to "home" changed, but the sentimentality didn't. And that sentimentality is passed on and allows you to start a family and be an adult and a functioning member of society. And I shared this with many of the people, if not all of the people I interviewed, who come from radically different backgrounds. Deacon is one of them. I mean, here's a guy who is poor, black, went to prison for many years, and came out, found God, and one of the main things he wants, getting out of prison, is to own a home. Why? Because it means that he is a legitimate member of society. It's a form of penance for him.
THE OA: The book doesn't draw any easy conclusions. But I'm curious if there are any broad conclusions we can take from this whole fiasco.
PR: More of it is criminal than I had thought. More of the crisis is attributable to criminal action, to those nefarious schemes you hear about. And it's disappointing, again, how cliché that is.
In a way, if I regret anything, it is putting faith in the problem being more complicated than it looks like it's turning out to be. Especially when you find out circumstances like Goldman Sachs betting against the toxic securities that they were peddling, and you unearth the practices and the machinations of Countrywide, and you look at, demographically, how minorities and the poor were targeted. It's so sad. It's sad that it is so predictable, these powerful entities—the powers that be will fall into a pattern. It's the same old thing. And as far as these broader generalizations about the crisis and what has happened to the market, at least for a generation, you would think that people will be smarter. One of the things that amazed me is that—especially with the poor and minorities and people who barely had a high-school education who were getting themselves into this mess—none of the inevitabilities of taxes and insurance and real estate, whether renting or owning, is taught at the level of education that it needs to be in order to prepare people to handle it. And it's shocking that when you consider that we're putting kids through calculus and whatever other elective, something that is certainly more inevitable and certainly as important is some course whereby they're taught how to manage a budget, because they're certainly being targeted. It's just so sad how predictable and cliché this is, but you have banks and credit-card companies that are targeting these kids at the age of fifteen. So why shouldn't they be prepared to defend themselves by the time they get to college and have the independence to misspend that money? Why aren't they given the tools they need to manage it well? Because that will certainly save this country a lot of money in terms of future bailouts and future emergencies and on an individual level, too. So in terms of a broader generalization, we go back to this idea that whatever doesn't kill you makes you stronger, and you do see some educational reform, you do see some of these classes being introduced. Fiscal literacy is what they call it, and it's being introduced into certain curricula.
THE OA: Could you tell me about the fate of some of the people whose homes you trashed out?
PR: I followed up on each and every home that appears in the beginning of the book and I had an idea for the paperback version to follow up on the houses—because the houses themselves became characters—rather than following up with the people. For one thing, the people want to disappear—they're not interested in being followed by anyone, especially a reporter. And they did, for the most part, disappear. The last I checked in on the deacon, he'd remarried, he'd started a new life—in fact, it's in the book—he had his eye on another house, his desire to be a homeowner had not been diluted at all. He was still as enthusiastic about it as ever. And as far as the rest of them, I really don't know how they ended up because the cell-phone numbers expired. Some of them ended up in shelters, some of them ended up with relatives. I don't know. The houses themselves have a variety of fates that probably speak to the fates of the individuals themselves. The deacon's house, it's in a very bad neighborhood. It was the worst foreclosure I've ever seen; it was the nastiest place. And it turns out, after this investor bought it, to be the most charming house on the block. It's a very cute bungalow now, lightly painted, with a nice full-manicured lawn. But, unfortunately, the block itself, because of the neighborhood, has deteriorated around it, so the investor can't sell it. In fact, the last price he was asking was the same price that he bought it for, which was like $20,000 at an auction. So he might end up losing the home to foreclosure because of the neighborhood around it. Some of the houses are just sitting there, deteriorating, empty. Some houses became the first home for immigrant families. Another house was a home for a young family with a baby. One house just kept going in and out of foreclosure. They all shared various fates. And that was part of the main operating metaphor of the book—the ecology of this. The ecosystem of foreclosures and how some perish but others regenerate.