When my husband and I started looking for a house this past spring, we were in the same boat as a lot of first time homebuyers. We knew that we couldn’t afford much in the overpriced housing market of our metropolitan area, Washington DC. We knew that we needed to get a steal in order to find a house that would accommodate our growing family. We loved the neighborhood, the proximity to public transportation, and the big poplar trees that provided a canopy over our street. We were smitten and we did end up getting a steal—we paid two thirds of what the previous buyer had paid only a few short years ago. My husband and I however had no idea that the purchase of our starter home in Falls Church would leave us knee deep in the moral mire of the foreclosure crisis, participants in a societal failure of epic proportions.
We knew that our house was a foreclosure. Actually, most of the houses that we looked at were foreclosures—they were all that were available within our price range. We knew that these sort of situations often came with some extra maintenance and extra cosmetic work: an extra financial cost. It also came with the human cost of suffering, racism and exploitation. Our first clue to this fact came when we were gutting the basement.
Galactic Sticker Soup
The basement of our house is prone to flooding, and during the many months that it stood vacant moisture accumulated and created a mess. We had to demolish any existing walls and remediate the bare bones for mold. We were doing the final walk through before demolition. The small partitioned room we walked into was a humble room at best—the drywall had been installed but never painted, and the remainder of the room was probably just as it had been when the house was built in the 1950s, with laminate floors and wood siding.
It wasn’t until I looked up that I realized that someone had actually been living in this unfinished, damp basement room. Dozens of stars, planets, and magical animals were floating in a galactic sticker soup—they were carefully and lovingly applied to the unfinished drywall ceiling by someone who clearly cared about this a lot.This was a child’s room. Not just any child, but a child with imagination. We walked around the room, checking the closets, and as one door swung open this child suddenly had a name. “Danny’s Room” was scrawled in a first grader’s handwriting on the inside of one closet door. Danny. And so I was introduced to possibly the smallest member of the family in whose home we were now living.
Our new neighbors were extremely eager to offer us their opinions of Danny’s family.There was the woman who, upon meeting us out on a walk and finding out where we lived, exclaimed, “Oh, the house with those horrible Spaniards!” Another neighbor refers to our house as the “Mexican Boarding House.” And then there are those neighbors who made more subtle comments about “those people,” as in, “You know, those people could sure knock back some Coronas.” Danny’s family was not well liked by the same neighborhood that seemed to embrace my own white, middle class family with open arms. They were downright despised. Actually, only one neighbor has ever shown any compassion at all to Danny’s family—interestingly, a neighbor who herself is not well liked by many in the neighborhood. “You know, they really tried,” Sandy said sadly. “The mom and dad would leave well before dawn to clean elementary schools for extra cash. They even tried renting some rooms out when that wasn’t enough. But they really loved that house. They were so proud of it.” Somehow, Sandy’s portrait is the one that I have chosen to hold onto as the truth.
Though their entire story isn’t clear to me, from what I could glean from different neighbors everything seemed to be stacked up against Danny’s family in owning this house. There were loan sharks that gave Danny’s family a subprime loan on a house that was probably never worth the exorbitant sum they paid for it. There were the government agencies that stood by as these types of predatory loans became the norm, especially in immigrant communities. There were the neighbors who were eager to cast judgment and hatred without any love and support. And then there were people like me. People who were willing to swoop in and snag a good deal without really considering the human cost of this whole mess. That’s where this story began, and that’s where it ends.
Now that my family is in this house, there’s not a whole lot we can do retroactively for Danny’s family. I will probably never see them, unless they drive by some day to take a look at the house that was once the fulfillment of a dream and then quickly became a nightmare. But even so I wouldn’t recognize them. They are faceless and marginalized, just as most of the people that Jesus chose to interact with during his lifetime.
However, living in this house and coming to know Danny’s family through the walls, windows, and floors of this home has made me look at my community a little bit differently. It has certainly influenced the issues that I hope to see the politicians elected to office holding up as a priority. And, it makes me aware that it was only a combination of circumstances and privilege that kept my own family from the fate of Danny’s family. Ultimately it is this mutuality, the knowledge that a slightly different mix of prejudice and predation could make me, my husband and our precious one-year old girl as vulnerable as Danny and his family.