Autumn temps are perfect for outdoor activities
It's easy now, a few years on, to forget how sensible it appeared in the middle of the aughts to leverage yourself to the hilt in order to buy a home. In south Florida, where I lived from 2003 to 2006, wages were stagnant while housing prices swelled unfettered as ego. Hard work was for suckers in an era of zero percent down. In 2004 a reporter friend of mine laid down $199,000 — every dime of which was borrowed — for a three-bedroom house in Fort Lauderdale, made his mortgage payments for a little more than a year and in 2006, with the bubble still going strong, sold the joint for a cool $290,000. That he would take the money and run to rent a townhouse was a contrarian bit of prescience on his part. He explained to me at the time, "I just didn't think there was any way my house was worth that much."
Turned out he was right, and the buyer later went into foreclosure after failing to sell the house for $360,000. But my friend, and surely thousands of other homebuyers, managed to hit the sweet spot, or enough of it, to win in this overheated game of musical chairs. They bought low, sold higher and got out. Along the way they did their small part to court the demise of the global economy.
But these weren't junk bonds they were buying but homes, which bring with them a mythology and romance that make homebuying, in part, an irrational act. When the foreclosures came, it was houses, not just balance sheets, that were vacated. Understanding the meltdown requires that we account for the emotions of home. In that regard, Paul Reyes' narrative "Exiles in Eden: Life Among the Ruins of Florida's Great Recession" (Henry Holt and Co., hardcover, $25) stands as an essential component of explaining the last decade, often in achingly human terms. "Home ownership," he writes, "became a self perpetuating addiction: As more people qualified to own a home, more people wanted one, and as the demand for homes increased, so did the price."
In his first book, Reyes — an erstwhile Oxford American editor and a Little Rock homeowner (and in disclosure, a friend) — has laid out the mortgage meltdown not from the view of Wall Street or Capitol Hill, but in the melancholy aftermath of the apocalypse: He is Mad Max as forensic investigator. His entry point is a job that I didn't even know existed before reading the Harper's Magazine story (a finalist for a National Magazine Award) that germinated the book: helping his Cuban-born father, Jose, clean foreclosed homes ("trash out" the places, in the parlance) around Tampa, Fla., so banks could resell them after the fall.
Journalists are often archaeologists of the present, and in this charge, Reyes brings a detective's discernment to the emotional lives of abandoned things, as well as a pickpocket's elegance to his wordcraft. Where Reyes the reporter — and, to strong effect, memoirist — reaches beyond journalism, he ventures into literature's mission of explaining human motive. Why would people invest in overpriced real estate? Well, once upon a time, his parents did just that. Reyes' father, who in this book plays both muse and foil for the author, bought land in the state's Jurassic interior — on his honeymoon, no less. The culture and land we've inherited was, at one time, for almost all of us, parcel to a hustle. That goes double for Floridians.
Reyes plays interrogator and witness to the culprits and victims of this surround-sound Ponzi scheme. When they leave behind flea-infested yards, scribbled-in Bibles and baby pictures, he sympathizes with their failures. Never does he blame them for trying. No one would have followed the numbers if they hadn't promised a life in the sun. As an old salesman tells Reyes, "For fifty years there's been this steady flow, the economy be damned."