Every house tells a story of the lives carried on within it.
The starkest of those tales — heartbreaking, disturbing, baffling, infuriating — may be told by the thousands of homes across Florida emptied by the flood of foreclosures in the past four years. The intimate and inscrutable tales etched within their walls are the subject of Exiles in Eden: Life Among the Ruins of Florida's Great Recession, by Tampa writer Paul Reyes.
You could fill a wheelbarrow with recently published books about the sources of the housing crash, books that crunch the numbers, recount the economic crimes and try to predict a path out of stalled subdivisions and plummeting property values.
Reyes focuses more on micro than macro. A writer and editor whose work has appeared in the Oxford American, Harper's, the New York Times and other publications, and the recipient of a literature fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts, he has also, between writing jobs, worked with his father, José Miguel Reyes, and his "trash out" crew in the Tampa Bay area.
"Trashing out" is the term for emptying and cleaning a foreclosed house — a line of work the senior Reyes got into more than a decade ago because his wife, Mena, is a real estate agent. Back then handling foreclosures was a sideline; Reyes' father tells him the things most often left behind were X-rays, medical bills and divorce papers.
Now trashing out is one of the few booming businesses around. When Reyes came home to work for his father in the spring of 2008, nearly 5,000 homes per month were being lost to foreclosure in the Tampa Bay area. "Every foreclosed house," he writes, "empty or not, clean or crumbling, feels lost, no matter the neighborhood or amenities, no matter the waterfront view. Some houses are left spotless, others in a wretched degradation, and the varieties are shared among the rich and poor, the elderly and the upwardly mobile."
So he goes to work with Hector and Ismael, the two Puerto Ricans who form his father's regular crew and approach their often gruesomely nasty jobs with aplomb. Reyes confesses he's not nearly so hardworking — he's too often distracted by the narratives suggested by the objects he finds. "What's left behind, in the way it falls or is tossed, is never just junk but a stroke of sorts — a mark, the chalk line around a body, the tags near the casings."
One house in Town 'N Country holds liquor bottles, a motorcycle helmet and huge trash bags stuffed with toys. Another in Holiday Park yields Mother's Day cards, 15 pairs of women's shoes and a stack of boxes filled with books. An old bungalow in Seminole Heights smells so strongly of "piss and mold" he can't stay inside. At a new house in Ashley Lakes, copies of Martha Stewart Living are stacked on a counter, and a big-screen TV is placed neatly next to the driveway.
The crew sometimes meets the homes' occupants, since they deliver notices from Mena, acting as the banks' agent, before eviction. They also must be there to break in, if need be, after a sheriff's deputy officially ejects the delinquent homeowners, a sometimes harrowing job.
Reyes tells us some of those occupants' stories: a nurse who has rented a Sulphur Springs house for years and is in utter panic because her landlord is being foreclosed; her neighbor, an ex-con turned deacon, who clearly has been scammed by mortgage brokers and real estate agents.
He also talks to people on the other side of the equation, investors who buy, repair and try to sell foreclosed houses. One of the "high-risk deed slingers" tells Reyes no place is unsalvageable: He once bought a house that sat on a sinkhole for $42,000 and sold it twice — once for $125,000 and, when that mortgage was foreclosed, to someone else for $80,000.
One chapter relates the efforts of Miami activist Max Rameau to reclaim foreclosed homes for people desperately in need of affordable housing. In a county where 6,000 people line up for 3,000 applications for Section 8 housing — even though they know they might well wait three years just for a response, much less a home — why, Rameau asks, do hundreds of empty houses stand rotting? Reyes follows Rameau's media-savvy efforts to keep one family in their longtime home, carefully reporting a complex situation.
Florida, of course, has always been notorious for its boom-and-bust real estate cycles, and Reyes provides context with some of its history of hucksterism, hype and downright fraud. Tampa, he points out, was a "sopping, impossible topography," considered, like the rest of the state, pretty much uninhabitable until the arrival of Henry Plant's railroad and luxury hotel (now home to the University of Tampa) in the 1880s.
Reyes visits another, more recent development with its own astonishing history of boom and bust, Lehigh Acres in Lee County. Starting in the 1950s, Chicago tycoon Lee Ratner and Miami adman Gerald Gould carved some 60,000 acres of ranchland into lots. They brought tourists in and peddled the unimproved land for $10 down, $10 a month. It never occurred to them to plan a community with schools, business districts or infrastructure, but sales were "an incredible success."
One of their sales, in 1969, was made to a young couple on their honeymoon, a 22-year-old Cuban immigrant and his 18-year-old Colombian-born bride. They paid $825 for a quarter-acre lot. They were Reyes' parents.
His father tells him, four decades later, they've never even seen the land.
Reyes ends Exiles in Eden with a visit to that land, a surreal experience that includes an encounter with Rick Anglickis, a former Lehigh Acres salesman and current resident, who talks about how in the good old days the small rooms prospects were brought to were bugged, so salespeople could listen to their private conversations and figure out how to close the deal.
One of the best tricks, Anglickis says: offering to pray with them. "I used to love it when a salesman got the 'We gotta think about it and pray over this thing.' They would buzz me and say, 'We got one!' And I'd come across the street just to hear them pray.' "
Colette Bancroft can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8435. She blogs on Critics Circle at blogs.tampabay.com/critics.