Monday, January 28, 2008

US mortgage crisis creates ghost town

Jan 27 02:31 PM US/Eastern
The streets are empty. Trash rustles down the road past rusted barbecues, abandoned furniture, sagging homes and gardens turned to weed.

This is Shaker Heights, a suburb of Cleveland and a town ravaged by the subprime mortgage crisis roiling the United States.

Faded "for sale" signs sit in front of deserted houses. The residents are gone, either in search of new jobs after the factories shut down, or in shame after being evicted for missing their mortgage payments.

A red, white and blue American flag flies over windows and doors which have been boarded up to keep the drug dealers away.

Thieves have stripped many homes of the plumbing, the doors, the windows, the aluminum siding.

The police station parking lot is full. The officers, who have seen their numbers triple since 2006, are coming back from their rounds. They speak of installing alarms in some of the homes claimed by squatters.

At 9422 Chagrin Street, a hand-scrawled sign attached to a window indicates someone lives there: "Please Used."

After three rings of the bell, Sarah Evans, 60, opens the door with a mixture of curiosity and alarm.

She says she is one of the last people left on the street. And she is on the verge of losing this two-bedroom house in which she has lived for more than 30 years because she simply cannot afford her monthly payments.

It is a complicated story. She refinanced in 2003, but did not realize the document she signed included provisions to radically increase the interest rate.

She stopped making payments in 2006 and shows her unpaid bills totaling 24,000 dollars.

Her bank is in the midst of eviction procedures.

"When folks buy a home they expect to die in it, I guess," she said as she stood outside in the cold. "I had my American Dream but it became a nightmare."

Her words are echoed by the angry barks of the guard dogs pacing behind a chain link fence two houses away that was installed by the new owner: a bank.

The massive parking lot of the Eagle Fresh supermarket is empty.

Behind her till, Myra Bibldwit lifts her head when a bell signals the entrance of a customer.

"Not many folks come anymore. We're used to it," said the 24-year-old cashier, one of the few in the neighborhood who managed to hold onto her job.

In the five hours since she started working today she has served just 10 customers. "Maybe you will buy something," she says with a smile.

Then comes customer number 12.

Laura Johnston, 50, says that her street -- about 10 minutes away by car -- was alive two years ago. Today, half the houses are abandoned.

"Folks could not afford their payments. They were asked to pay loans which doubled. They could not afford it, some lost their job. Lenders were greedy. They threw them out of their homes," she told AFP.

"I'm very upset. I missed my friend Helen. She disappeared overnight. She did not even say goodbye."

There are plenty of cases like Helen. They are called the neighbors who disappear in the night.

For county treasurer Jim Rokakis, the greed of the banks is to blame for this man-made disaster.

"All you needed was a pulse to buy a house. Some loans were written with no money down, no proof of buyer's incomes. They did not even check what people were saying. Most of those folks were jobless," he said in an interview.

"Shaker Heights was the perfect storm: poor folks, unemployed and a desire to get a piece of the American Dream."

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