The Human Toll of America's New Ghost Towns

ghost towns
ghost towns

When pundits discuss homeownership, they often frame the issue in terms of purchases, lending rates, housing starts and other economic data. For the DailyFinance series "Ghost Towns of the Recession," we took a different tack: rather than rely on the numbers, we looked at some neighborhoods where the dream of owning a home has become a nightmare of foreclosures, underwater mortgages and abandoned houses.

Indeed, real estate agents, builders and banks sell homeownership as a key part of the American dream. This certainly fits into the mythos of Las Vegas, heart of the most foreclosed state in the nation and the subject of one of our articles. In Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Hunter S. Thompson's "Savage Journey to the Heart of the American Dream," he follows in the footsteps of millions of pilgrims, from Mormons to mobsters to an endless stream of vacationers in search of a lucky roll of the dice. And Thompson wasn't the end of the line: A little over 10 years after his book came out, he was followed by a torrent of would-be homeowners seeking low-price real estate in a city that quickly became the fastest-growing area in America.

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In his book, Thompson's search for the American dream ends at the burned-out husk of a former nightclub, a fitting metaphor for a city that went from the fastest-growing to the most-foreclosed city in America in the space of a year. As our article and its accompanying video document, today more than 80% of Vegas mortgages are underwater, and empty or abandoned home pepper the city.

Sunshine and Stricken Suburbs

Vegas is hardly the only region whose housing sector fed on dreams. In Florida, the third-most foreclosed state, dreams have fed the area's growth ever since Ponce de Leon ventured there in search of the fountain of youth. Our piece from Florida explores a different kind of dream: an uncompleted "Italian resort themed" suburban neighborhood that's now filled with cows. In order to save on taxes in the now-unprofitable real estate venture, the area's developer had the area reclassified as farmland and moved in livestock. As for the people who live there, the swanky neighborhood they signed on for is now a barbed-wire bonanza.

And dreams continue to be deferred across the country. In Modesto, Calif., Todd Lappin documents empty streets, hastily boarded-up windows and stagnant swimming pools in the fourth most foreclosed state. With his images of rusting barbecues, overgrown yards and abandoned homes, Lappin sketches a near-apocalyptic landscape, the scattered leavings of a once-posh suburban development.

Meanwhile, a promising development in Vickery, Ga., has started transforming into a money pit. To the dismay of the area's residents, the bankruptcy of Vickery's developer and rising foreclosures have sent neighborhood fees through the roof, even as property values have tumbled. As the author notes, it's unclear if the bucolic neighborhood will ever recoup its lost property values.

Small-Town Destitution

One doesn't have to travel to a sun-kissed wonderland to find a dream that came crashing down. As David Schepp documents in "The Housing Mess Hits One New York Town Hard," Mount Vernon, a scruffy suburb of New York City has also watched its property values plummet. With a majority African-American and Hispanic populace, the working-class city was heavy targeted by subprime lenders, a factor that helps explain why prices have fallen by 37% across the city and by as much as 72% in some neighborhoods.

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In his piece on an abandoned house in his New Jersey neighborhood, DailyFinance's Jon Berr shows how the foreclosure crisis extends far beyond the people who have lost their homes. While trying to deal with an absentee neighbor's overgrown yard, unlocked doors and fallen trees, Berr tumbles into a Kafkaesque nightmare, Garden State-style. With an absentee owner and confusion over which bank holds the mortgage, Berr struggles to untangle the bureaucratic Gordian knot that has enmeshed the abandoned house on his street.

As banks ignore the property, its neighbors remain in limbo, dreading that the house will become a hazard, yet realizing that that may be the only way to get the authorities to handle it.

While foreclosure percentages and lending rates can show the health of the construction industry, they don't convey the hope of homeownership and the horror of watching it fall apart. In our series, DailyFinance strives to show the high human price of foreclosure: its brutal effect on families, communities -- and dreams.