Foreclosure activity dropped by more than a third this past year. But despite the national slowdown, regional companies that take care of foreclosed homes are still thriving. Their job is to keep empty houses safe from squatters, thieves and decay … all of which bring down neighborhood property values. From our Changing Gears project, Kate Davidson reports.
The first part of Dawn Hammontree’s story is familiar in Michigan. Her unemployment ran out in December.
HAMMONTREE: Got the foreclosure notice in March. Which is very scary.
Hammontree used to work for a property tax firm that did business with the Big Three automakers. They took a hit, she was laid off. And for the next three years, she says she sent out 60 resumes a week. She was desperate to keep a roof over her son’s head.
HAMMONTREE: I felt like I was being sucked into a black hole. I had trouble sleeping. Wasn’t eating well. Just a general feeling of despair and despondency.
And then three days before her time was up, Dawn Hammontree got a reprieve from the bank. She’d finally found a job. And the one place she could get in … well…
HAMMONTREE: The job that saved my house from foreclosure is working for a company that maintains and preserves foreclosed homes. It’s been three months that I’ve been there and I have not gotten over the irony of this. I chuckle whenever I think about it. We’re not short of work.
JOHNSON: Find a light switch here.
Foreclosure rates may be falling, but you wouldn’t know it in the trenches … or in basements like this.
JOHNSON: You can definitely smell water and it’s musty down here. I can see water on the floor, it appears that there was some sort of a sewer backup.
Brandon Johnson runs a property preservation company called GTJ Consulting. We’re in a house in Roseville, Michigan. Yesterday was the eviction.
Today Johnson’s crew removes debris so the bank can eventually resell. Garbage bags fill up with the remnants of family life: A volleyball net. A rubber spatula. A little yellow book called “Toilet Training in Less Than a Day.” Though their foreclosure rates fell, Michigan, Ohio and Illinois were among the ten states with the most foreclosure actions last month, according to the group RealtyTrac. Brandon Johnson says he sometimes sees houses two or three times.
JOHNSON: The same home. We’ve come in, we’ve cleaned it out, we’ve cleaned it up, we’ve maintained it, it’s sold. And then 24 months later, we’re right back to the same house again. It’s mind boggling, it really is.
When Johnson started the company ten years ago it was just him and his dad. Now they have two offices, 120 full time employees and a network of contractors.
JOHNSON: On any given day there’s probably a thousand people, you know, working on GTJ’s behalf all over southern Michigan.
And they’re not alone. In December, the group Safeguard Properties was recognized as the fastest growing company in Northeast Ohio with net sales of more than 100 million dollars. They’re up to 900 employees. The company’s founder says business is still increasing.
HAMMONTREE: It’s working. Now, finally, it’s working.
Back in Eastpointe, Michigan, Dawn Hammontree sits in the kitchen that’s still hers for now. She’s profoundly grateful. But she says there’s no guarantee it won’t fall apart tomorrow.
HAMMONTREE: I’ve got this great job, I love the job, I love the people I work with. And I know, now, there’s no such thing as security.
For Changing Gears, I’m Kate Davidson.
This story is informed by the Public Insight Network. Changing Gears is a public media collaboration between Michigan Radio, WBEZ and Ideastream in Cleveland. Support for Changing Gears comes from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.