The headlines from the 2008 financial crisis targeted macro catastrophes: the collapse of Lehman Brothers, the perils of AIG, government bailouts. But the crisis also encompassed thousands of discrete dramas lived by homeowners with rotten mortgages. How did these nameless cope with the crumbling dream of homeownership, and how did they come to have that dream in the first place? Paul Reyes tackles these questions in Exiles in Eden, a compelling combination of memoir, history and reportage from one of the states hardest hit by the housing collapse.
Reyes (with whom I have worked at The Oxford American) is in a special position to tell this story. His father’s business is “trashing out” foreclosed Tampa-area homes—cleaning houses abandoned by owners who could not meet the payments. Working with his father’s crew, Reyes comes to know many evictees only through the detritus they have left behind. Others he tracks down—a former drug addict and current deacon who thought he had his life on track until the bank called; a man too stubborn to accept payment for his keys who one day simply disappears.
This portion of the book began as a National Magazine Award-nominated article for Harper’s. With Exiles in Eden, Reyes expands the scope of that piece in several ways. He examines his father’s personal history, from his early promise as an architect and engineer to his current struggles against the corporate trash-out giants the housing crisis has spawned. He reports on Max Rameau, a Miami activist who shelters families by putting them in houses legally the property of banks. He explores Lehigh Acres, a town built on hucksterism and the marketable appeal of homeownership rather than sustainable development—and a town where Reyes owns a quarter-acre because his parents fell prey to that hucksterism on their honeymoon in 1969.
Readers may wish that Exiles in Eden had gone into more detail about the rarified financial concepts it occasionally toys with. But Reyes offers something harder to come by: a reflection on the struggle between development and nature; on the clash between the rule of law and justice in housing; and on the many ways a life can be rocked by foreclosure.