Life on a Ghost Block: When the Mortgage Crisis Hits Home
We hear a lot about the people who have lost their homes to foreclosure. But maybe not so much about the people left behind. They've kept their homes, but also lost them in a way, as the houses around them emptied out. Sometimes blocks like this are called Ghost Blocks. As part of our series, Facing the Mortgage Crisis, WBEZ's Ashley Gross and photographer Carlos Javier Ortiz visited a ghost block in the South Chicago neighborhood, where one family is still making its home.
Amparo Nunez doesn't really want us here.
AMPARO NUNEZ: Ah, pero…
CARLOS JAVIER ORTIZ: Si pero quiero saber como te… se siente también.
AMPARO: No pero…
She doesn't really want someone in her house, asking questions, putting a microphone in her face.
AMPARO: ¿Como me siento viviendo aquí o que…?
ORTIZ: No, ¿como se sintió cuando pagaron la casa?
AMPARO: Ah, bueno. Contentos porque ya no tenemos preocupación de que…de estarlo pagando.
But you can see how proud she and her husband Froylan are of their home.
FROYLAN NUNEZ: Pues, gracias al Dios, yo como a tener buenos trabajos, cuando trabajé en el steel mill ganaba muy bien
Happy and relieved it's paid off. Grateful to have had work even after the steel mills that brought them to this neighborhood shut down. Happy to have raised a family here. He's thankful to God but says God didn't do everything. If they hadn't worked hard themselves, they wouldn't have anything. But what they do have – this brick bungalow – is fragile. The neighborhood around them is crumbling.
ambi: going outside and opening gate
FROILAN NUNEZ: See the boards there, one is the door, what would be the door, and to the left of it is a window.
That's their son. He's also named Froilan.
FROILAN: So they would break in, and I don't know if they stored drugs or something, but…
He's pointing to the house next door, where his friend Hector lived growing up in the '80s. Now it's empty, boarded up, tagged by the Latin Dragons.
ambi: car driving by with stereo playing
Froilan's parents shuffle back inside. A few years back, Froylan senior was held up at gunpoint in back of the house. Now, they're resigned. They kind of have a bunker mentality. But their son is frustrated, outraged. He can't believe this is the block where he learned to catch pop flies.
FROILAN Jr.: These homes here, 8451, 8453, totally boarded up, you know, sad.
The block is a mixture of two-flats and single family homes. Trees line the street and some of the houses are well tended. But then there are clusters of board-ups, spraypainted with graffiti, littered with beer bottles and garbage.
FROILAN Jr.: And the windows, as you can see right above the one we're walking through here has no windows, missing windows on the second floor, the front door looks, come on, that looks like a vault doesn't it? What kind of door is that? That looks like something you'd see at a bank, look at the key hole, seriously.
Froilan says the real downfall started a decade ago when investors started buying up the two-flats. Renters cycled in and out. He says the owners took out multiple mortgages, sucked the equity out and then defaulted. And the people here – you see parents walking their kids down the street. But also clusters of guys hanging out in the middle of the intersection beneath a flashing blue light and in front of some homes. A woman named Rose says she's heading to the store. Her breath smells of alcohol.
ROSE: Like I say, I just go to the store and come back home. I don't know nothing about nobody over here. Nothing.
A couple days later, just two doors down from the Nunez house, there's something weird. That heavy gray door that looks like a vault is open. And inside is the new owner.
ERIK NANCE: Hey, how you doing, my name is Erik Nance, I'm pastor of City of God Christian Ministries, where you can catch us every Sunday, 5:30 to 6:00 on 106.3.
Nance has a lot of big ideas for this place he bought for less than 8000 dollars.
ambi: walking upstairs
He wants to turn it into a group home for men recovering from addiction. But it's still kind of in the idea phase. He's doing this for the first time and hasn't applied for any grants yet. He says he has applied for a license from the state.
NANCE: Probably two men per bedroom. And so you have six bedrooms total, so it's probably going to be 12 men living here on a day to day basis. Their day to day is going to consist of showers. We're going to make sure they obtain some type of employment. Me and a group of investors are opening up a Waffle House on the south side of Chicago. hopefully a lot of them can work there or work construction…
I think hey, sounds a little pie in the sky. But maybe it's a glimmer of hope. Froilan and his parents are way more skeptical. Froilan says, "Oh great, another investor owner." And he says isn't it kind of crazy to put men recovering from addiction on a block with a thriving drug trade? For now his parents are focusing on what they can control – inside their four walls.
ambi: Amparo in the kitchen with granddaughters
Amparo Nunez is in her kitchen, making taquitos for her granddaughters. She's in her element here and forgets that we're around recording, taking pictures.
ambi: Amparo with her grandbaby
Froylan Nunez senior relaxes into his armchair. He's a man who's worked 19 years on a city garbage truck, cleaning up after people on the north side. He comes home to neighbors' houses strewn with litter. I ask him if he's thought of moving.
FROYLAN: Pensaba pero ya no porque no puedo y me voy a retirar de mi trabajo y ya no puedo comprarme otra propiedad. Si vendo este no me dan ni…ni para un chicle.
Yes, he says. But who'd buy his house? He says he wouldn't even get a stick of gum for it. So he and his wife hang pictures of their granddaughters on their walls inside – and try to forget what's going on outside.