The Surreal Estate

Perspectives on Tenant Organizing from the Urban Homesteading Assistance Board

“Spotlight” on Foreclosure


In March 2010, the New York Times documented John Hulsey’s project “72 Hours” — an art piece that portrays foreclosure.  The article features 60 people gathered outside a foreclosed house in the Dorchester neighborhood of Boston to watch this temporal art-piece.  At this time, foreclosure in Dorchester was twice the state average. Folks came to this space as part of a walking tour organized by City Life/Vida Urbana, a housing group that supports individuals fighting eviction.

In each window, Husley projected silhouettes of family-members emulating the last 72-hours of living in a foreclosed home.  The silhouettes feature women packing boxes, men folding clothes, and children playing together. The actors in Hulsey’s footage are actual  homeowners that have lost their homes due to foreclosure.

Hulsey alludes to this work as a “virtual occupation.”  The project’s participants  did not attain permission to use the space in Dorchester.  Rather, the action served as a form of reclaiming by humanizing the trauma of foreclosure and elucidating the need for more adequate housing rights. The use of silhouettes creates a mode of connectivity, allowing homeowners and tenants throughout the country to relate to the experience of foreclosure.

As I watch this piece, my mind wanders to the experience of the tenants that I work with. We work primarily in multi-family homes. While foreclosure operates differently in these cases, the trepidation and sadness that accompanies the experience is similar. As the prospect of foreclosure looms, landlords neglect buildings, which forces tenants to watch their spaces deteriorate before their very eyes.  As conditions worsen, tenants feel compelled to either move away from their homes or fight to rejuvenate their spaces.  In my opinion, tenants should never have to endure this reality.

For many, the experience of foreclosure is damaging, disorienting, frightening. In turn, we must build capacity to minimize the ubiquity of foreclosure. At UHAB, we believe we can do this by fighting predatory equity and demanding more responsible lending paradigms. And as Husley’s project reminds us: as we come together through shared experience, we hope to create greater visibility for and connectivity to tenants facing foreclosure.

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