Sunday, February 22, 2009

When the housing crisis gets literally too close to home

I’d seen stories on TV news about how people who’d lost their homes just packed up what they could into their cars, after which crews would come and clear out everything else they’d left behind. This Sunday I saw it happen in my own neighborhood.

A bank-owned home being "trashed-out" in Santa Clara.

I was walking my dog in a light afternoon rain when I came upon this scene: a “Bank Owned” real estate sign planted in front of a modest three-bedroom tan stucco-walled home in the 500 block of Chapman Court, just off The Alameda, in Santa Clara. Parked across the street was a dumpster, filled with a mattress, armchairs, shelves and other possessions that had made that house a home. Shuttling back and forth between the house and the dumpster were three men working in what is one of the fastest-growing jobs in the country: clearing out foreclosed homes.

The crew leader, José, said he works for a Las Vegas company that, despite being overwhelmed with work clearing out homes in that distressed market, dispatched him here where there is also plenty of work. Since he arrived in the San Jose area seven days ago, José said he’s not had a day off and averages 16 of these house-clearing projects a day.

Banks and mortgage lenders hire such companies to clear out foreclosed homes and clean them up so they can be put back on the market as quickly as possible, so the lender can make some of their money back.

A child's school photo left behind

The onetime owner of the Chapman Court house did come back after moving out to retrieve some valuable items, José said, such as TV sets or computers, and what was left behind was rightly headed to the landfill or at best a rummage sale. But I’ve seen cases in which seemingly everything was left behind. A report aired on a recent "NBC Nightly News" but I'm having trouble including the link. But here's another report from PBS’s “The News Hour with Jim Lehrer,” from Oct. 2008 on clearing out abandoned homes.

In the NBC report, golf clubs, sofas, paintings and some personal items are taken away by “trash-out companies” and while some items are set aside to be given to charities, many were simply thrown out. In the PBS report, residents left behind newer TVs, computers, important documents like a birth certificate and other perfectly good items.

A dumpster of what had made this house a home

It’s bad enough that people lose their homes. But I find it just heartbreaking that people find themselves in such desperate straits that they have neither the time nor the resources to try to save some of their belongings in order to furnish their next home, even if it’s only going to be a rental.

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