The Ones Who Thought They Were Protected

part 1, 2

Karen Lewis's son Cooper, who could define foreclosure by age four, celebrates his fifth birthday.
Photo by Krissy Clark

As depressing as things can get in Las Vegas with all the foreclosures, there is nothing like an animatronic dancing mouse and some birthday cake to take your mind off things. Karen Lewis and her son Cooper are at Chuck E. Cheese, the mouse-themed kid's restaurant and arcade. Cooper is turning 5. This is his birthday party.

It's also a reunion of sorts. A few months ago, Lewis' work as a business consultant in Las Vegas started to dry up. She was worried about having enough income to hold on to her house, and take care of her son, so she took a temporary job assignment in Houston. But the company in Houston cut short her contract, saying she was too expensive. So Lewis and her son are back in Las Vegas, for the first time in months.

Cooper runs off with his friends to take silly pictures in the photo booth. Lewis catches up with the mothers. It doesn't take long before the subject of foreclosures comes up. It's like talking about the weather in Las Vegas, a way to pass the time. The women share stories of falling home values, and talk about all the people they know who are moving away. Then one of the moms excuses herself. She and her kids have to go to their own going-away party. Her husband was laid off from his job in the construction industry. They can't afford their house anymore. They are moving to Seattle, where he's found work. They plan to mail their house keys to the bank. They're gone before the cake is served. And Lewis' circle of friends is one family smaller.

When Lewis drives home from the party, she slows down at the gate that surrounds San Niccolo. Not only have tow trucks been ramming it, but she's watched the younger renters in the neighborhood bash it with their trucks late at night. The gate has a perpetual squeak now, and the motor lurches. The Homeowner's Association can no longer keep up with maintenance and repairs; They don't have enough money, with so many people moving out. They cut back on security guards too.

Lewis says she wishes San Niccolo could be the way she once imagined it; neat and pretty, full of suburban professionals who raise families and put down roots. She thinks it could still be that way. She's desperate for people to buy. On an evening walk, she passes a house with a "bank owned" sticker in the window. The door is wide open, the lights are on, and two cars are in the driveway. Lewis' eyes light up. She heads to the door.

A real estate agent is showing the place to a young couple. Potential new neighbors! Lewis introduces herself, tells them she lives across the street. This would be the couple's first house, and they've already looked at 20 this weekend. The wife goes upstairs to check out the closets. The husband has questions. He starts to ask Lewis how much she paid for her house, but stops short, afraid of being rude. "It's OK, I have no shame," Lewis says. She tells them she paid $435,000. The house this couple is looking at is the same model as hers, and it's listed at $240,000. "It's a steal," Lewis says. She turns to leave, but she comes back. "This is a great neighborhood," she says, and turns to leave again. But she stops at the door. "I need you guys to move in, and help the houses appreciate back to what the potential is." She offers to let the couple see her house, for comparison, but they politely decline. They look a little overwhelmed by her enthusiasm.

Lewis returns home. She has a confession to make. As much as she wants people to move in to San Niccolo, she is making plans to leave, for good. So far, she isn't having trouble making her mortgage payments, but she's worried about finding enough consulting work, and her house has become a source of anxiety. "I just have to let go," she says. "To have this house be who I am. I'm already struggling." As she watches more and more of her friends lose their jobs and their houses, she catches herself playing out worst-case scenarios in her head, late at night. "Eventually I'll lose my job. I'll be in foreclosure. And I'll have the shame of having horrible credit. I don't want my kid to see that."

Lewis has approached a real estate agent about selling her house. But now it's worth even less than what she owes on the mortgage. One option is to sell for what she can get, and pay the difference back to the bank, to avoid ruining her credit. But the thought of it makes her want to scream. "I wasn't a speculator. I hadn't reached for a house I couldn't afford." This wasn't supposed to happen to her. She had done everything right. A year ago, she was watching other people lose their homes, and though she felt bad for them, she also thought she knew better. Now she feels a step away from foreclosure herself.

Lewis is imagining a different future now. She actually owns another house, a small rental unit in Philadelphia, near where her father lives. It's small, needs work, and it's in a rough part of town. But she figures even if she loses all her consulting work and has to wait tables for a living, she can make the mortgage. It's $500 a month, compared to the $2500 she spends now. She's decided to move there and rent out her house in San Niccolo, while she figures out whether to sell it at a loss now, or hold on to it long enough for the market to bounce back. At least, she hopes it will. She says she'll miss her dream house. But maybe it was the wrong dream. She mentions a guy she met on a business trip a few months ago. They started talking in a restaurant, and she realized he was a Lost Boy, one of the thousands of young Sudanese refugees displaced from his country during civil war.

"You want to talk about being put in perspective," she says. "He was just happy that I knew of the Lost Boys. And I was like, 'Yeah, we in America do care about you guys.'" She's been moaning to herself because she is moving to a smaller house. And look at him. "He is living the American dream, because he's got a job, he's got a place to live, he's not living in a conflict, he's not living in a camp. I mean being normal - that's an OK American dream to have."

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