Bruce Gilden | No Place Like Home

Country of origin: United States
Project location: United States
Program: Magnum Foundation Fund
Year: 2010

At the time of the American historical pre-election, Gilden captured the sorrow of Americans affected by foreclosures and the melancholy of abandoned homes. His work in Florida became the first segment of “No Place Like Home” a project that would lead him between 2009 and 2011 to Detroit, Michigan; Fresno, California and Reno-Las Vegas, Nevada. The book Foreclosures was published in 2013.


Photographer Bruce Gilden been documenting foreclosures in some of America's hardest hit communities: Fort Myers, Florida; Detroit, Michigan; and most recently, with the support of the Magnum Foundation Emergency Fund, Fresno, California.John Shore is the Executive Director of the Community Housing Council of Fresno, a non-profit organization providing counseling to homebuyers seeking to keep their home from going into foreclosure. In Fresno California, John Shore introduced Bruce Gilden to people who were facing foreclosure. John Shore and Bruce Gilden spoke in wake of reports that 2011 would be the peak of the foreclosure crisis with 1.2 million homes repossessed by lenders.

BRUCE: What are the most significant challenges facing people with Foreclosed homes in Fresno?

JOHN: For those who have lost their homes to foreclosure, the vast majority still need and want a roof over their heads. Obviously a person with a foreclosure on their credit history will not be able to purchase a home for a minimum of three years, assuming that lenders do not tighten their credit standards in the meantime. Moving by choice is stressful enough. Moving under these conditions becomes quite an emotional experience. Many families who have lost or will lose their homes have owned them for many years. Losing a home through foreclosure is an embarrassing and traumatic experience for them. The psychological impact is great for them. Not all landlords are sympathetic and are reluctant to rent to someone who has a foreclosure on their credit report.

BRUCE: How is the foreclosure situation in California different from other states?

JOHN: Probably the single biggest difference is that California has been designated as one of the five hardest hit states. (The others being NV, AZ, MI, IN). Because of this, the Feds allocated 2 billion dollars just for CA to help solve the problem. While this money has been sitting in the CA treasury for close to a year, the State program "Keep Your Home CA" will start in February, 2011. CA became one of the hardest hit states because of the number of foreclosures and the drop in values we have seen.

BRUCE: What is this state program "Keep Your Home CA," and how will the money be used?

JOHN: The Keep Your Home CA program (KYHC) has been very slow to get going. It has been talked about for about 6 months and it will be available around January 24. The program is complex and will not be for everyone (what else is new). The program has 4 parts: 1) A program whereby the borrower can have up to 6 months of payments made for him if he is on unemployment. 2) Helps borrowers reinstate their loan if they are behind due to short-term financial problems. 3) A Principal reduction program for those that have severe negative equity positions thereby allowing them to secure a loan modification. 4) A transition program giving up to $5000 to the lender to be used to help transition the homeowner into a new property by using a short sale or deed-in-lieu of foreclosure program. Only time will tell if these programs will help as many Californians as is hoped. The prediction is that about 72,000 homeowners will be helped by these programs. Only program 1 is being rolled out at this time.

Impact on Home Owners

BRUCE: You pointed out that losing a home through foreclosure is an embarrassment and a traumatic experience for many people, and I agree with you: the psychological impact of foreclosure is immense and largely ignored. While working in Florida, Detroit and Fresno, I was struck by the fact that many people seemed ashamed of their situation, and preferred not to talk about it. I guess this must make your task even harder?

JOHN: It is not too difficult to convince clients that they need not feel embarrassed or ashamed of their situation. In many cases they have done nothing wrong. Our first point of contact is usually a group class, where clients can look around the room and realize they are not alone. They can also see by the way others are dressed, that this crisis has affected everyone. The sad thing is that we will never know the families who will not contact us and seek help. We cannot help those we don't know about. I am sure that there are many families who feel they have done something wrong to cause them to lose their job and/or home. Those are the folks I worry about.

BRUCE: Those who were willing to talk told me very sad stories. It seems that foreclosed persons experience an array of emotional setbacks that affect their whole family life. I heard stories of people getting divorced, losing their jobs because they could not concentrate, or not getting a job because the distance was too far from where they had relocated after being evicted. A woman was sleeping in her van in Florida, others in Fresno ended up in shelters or budget motels. I heard many stories of people who suffered an illness or a disability and weren't able to work and pay their bills for an extended period of time. A lot of them had to refinance their house which offered a temporary solution but created more long term serious problems. From what I understand, most of the subprime lending was for refinancing, not for buying in the first place. Was it also the case in the Fresno area?

JOHN: I would say that there were probably as many sub-prime loans used for purchases as there were for refinances. As property values shot up early in the decade, many families found that the only way they could achieve homeownership was with a sub-prime loan product. I blame the Federal Government and FHA for not keeping up with the times. Since FHA is a loan that is not easily changed (it requires Congressional approval for changes), as the property values rose in CA, the FHA loan became useless because the maximum FHA loan limit was tens of thousands of dollars below the average home being purchased; especially by first time (unsophisticated) buyers. Therefore, the lending industry quickly moved to high loan-to-value loan products (most of them being sub-prime) to take the place of what FHA could not do. This forced people who, if they could have bought with FHA, would have never got themselves into loans that were toxic. By the time FHA finally caught up to the market place, the damage had been done and property values were already starting to decline. FHA tried desperately to put out new loan products to stop the foreclosure freight train, but it was way too little, and too late. The FHA programs that have been rolled out since 2006 have been very weak and too restrictive to offer any kind of help. On top of that, you have a conflict between what FHA says can be done and the lack of investors in the secondary mortgage market that will be willing to buy the loan. For example, the fact that FHA guidelines state that they will insure a loan for a borrower with a credit score as low as 580. In reality, the vast majority of lenders will not make an FHA loan to a borrower unless they have a 640 credit score, the lowest score at which investors are willing to buy FHA loans.

BRUCE: In Fresno and in Florida I saw a lot of developments and constructions abandoned and never finished, and lots of houses built and sitting empty, never inhabited. In these two states, the landscape of foreclosure is much cleaner than in metro Detroit. In Fresno, it seems that you've been trying to keep the appearance of normality, except for the pools invaded by mosquitoes, but everywhere, the foreclosed people I met had something in common: they have stacks and stacks of paperwork documenting how the system has failed them, the calls to their lenders went unanswered, they had to wait 45 minutes to talk to somebody (a different person every time), they were told that they couldn't be helped, that the papers of their house had been sold, their files were lost, cases were going on for years. No matter how determined and organized, it seems that they can't win. Do you agree?

JOHN: Absolutely. Detroit was a war zone long before the housing bubble burst. Fresno has passed ordinances requiring minimum upkeep to foreclosed homes, which has helped keep the neighborhood looking better than other cities. The lenders have had to deal with something that they were not prepared for. They are over-whelmed in paperwork and they are trying to solve the problem with under-trained staff. Anytime a catastrophe hits, whether it is a 911 attack, a Katrina hurricane, a Haitian earthquake it really drives home how unprepared mankind is for catastrophe. The housing bust and its subsequent lack of adequate solutions is a prime example of this.

Solutions to the Problem of Foreclosures

BRUCE: What would be the way to get out of this crisis?

JOHN: The answer is two-fold. The bleeding has to be stopped before you can successfully get to the cause of the problem. Government cannot mandate housing values, but by putting a freeze on foreclosures, the market will stop loosing values. Lenders have been sitting on properties without receiving any payments for as long as 24 months. If the government mandated a freeze on foreclosures, with the stipulation that mortgage payments had to be reduced to 31% of a person's gross income and must begin to be paid again, the values would begin to come back. This would keep lenders from having to offer principle reductions to clients, which will improve their bottom lines. The second part of my solution may also be the most important. The government has done nothing to increase jobs, which has been the single largest factor to foreclosure, even more of a contributor than the sub-prime loans. People cannot make house payments without income, regardless of the type of mortgage they have. Rather than throw taxpayer money at programs that don't work, the government should put the unemployed to work fixing roads, cleaning up blighted areas, landscaping highways, or picking up litter. States should set up their own work programs as well. You will never solve a problem without working (literally) at it. People sitting around on unemployment or welfare have never been a plan for success.

BRUCE: Do you think that the situation has been handled well by the government?

JOHN: I do not think that the government felt this crisis would grow to the magnitude it has. Much like the Katrina lack of relief efforts, the various programs have fallen very short of helping the masses. For every family that has been successful in saving their home in working with their lender, there are 10 that have not been successful. There could have been programs mandated by the government that would not have used taxpayer dollars to keep this snowball from growing in size. It is truly like the falling of a line of dominos. Several people proposed plans to keep the crisis from gaining momentum, but because the USA is run by a group of CEOs that we call Congressmen, solutions came slow and watered-down.

BRUCE: I am not an economist, but I think that it would be more helpful to the distressed borrowers, and to the whole crisis, if the principal were modified rather than the interest. After all these abuses of inflated property values, we have reached a point where mortgages are much higher than the value of the houses. Lowering the principal would keep people in their homes, or prevent them from walking away from their debt. What do you think?

JOHN: I actually believe that getting the payment down to an affordable level will do a lot by itself. There are some interesting ideas floating around about how to solve this problem and believe it or not, many of them do not cost taxpayers anything! One idea is to provide a loan (without a payment) to pay the existing loan down to an affordable payment. This (as the theory goes) will stop the foreclosures and therefore eliminate any further decline in property values. Supply and demand will then take over and we will see property value start to increase. As this happens, the entity who made the loan to reduce the original loan, will share in the new equity gain. When the home is sold in the future, both loans would have to be paid off. There is currently a company out of Boston who is actually doing these, called the Boston Community Capital, a community development financial institution. The program is called the SUN initiative; Stabilizing Urban Neighborhoods.

BRUCE: What is your perspective on how foreclosure in Fresno has been portrayed in the media? What stories or visuals have gone missing?

JOHN: As with most issues, the media tends to look for stories that sell papers and ad time. Too much press and airtime is given to the negative without equal time given to the positives. Many clients became victims of foreclosure rescue scams, spending many thousands of dollars to a scam company that promised to help. More press and airtime could have helped those who have fallen prey to the economy and the con artist by making the public aware of agencies that offered free counseling and intervention help. The information that is given by the media is usually not comprehensive and accurate, thereby misleading families into false hope. People have had to turn to the internet for help and unfortunately, they can very easily end up work with a scammer. The local media should step up and realize they can be trusted. The TV stations could sponsor a weekly show letting people know where and how to get help.

BRUCE: How do you think my work can be helpful? There has already been a lot of exposure to the issue of foreclosure, so is there something my work is adding?

JOHN: I believe your story views the crisis from a perspective different than the news media. Your photographs show the pain of what the crisis has brought to many. Every politician should be made to watch and realize the impact that the crisis has had on so many. Unfortunately so many politicians and government officials have not been hit as hard as the average homeowner and may choose to ignore your work. But I hope that your work will be seen by many, over and over, to make those who can help, do so. As we speak, Congress is balking about funding the NFMC, the National Foreclosure Mitigation Counseling Program. Why are we so quick to spend millions when other countries are hit with natural disasters? Why can't we treat ourselves the way we seem to be quick to help others?

Born in 1946, Bruce Gilden and his photography are inextricably linked. Hours as a child looking at tough guys on the bustling streets of Brooklyn from his second-story window shaped Gilden’s attraction to his photographic subjects.

After studying sociology at Penn State University, Gilden felt drawn to photography as a lifestyle after seeing Michelangelo Antonioni's classic 1966 film Blow Up and he decided that he, too, would become a photographer. In 1968, he bought himself a cheap Miranda camera and took a few evening classes at the School of Visual Arts. Those early classes aside, Gilden is essentially self-taught. To support his burgeoning photography habit he drove a New York yellow cab, but found that the job left him no time to take pictures. So he quit and began driving a truck part-time for his father’s business, walking the streets with his camera on his days off. Since then, Bruce Gilden has continued to focus on strong characters and to apply Robert Capa’s mantra to his own work: “if the picture isn’t good enough, you aren’t close enough”.