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Feature

Rough Trade

When It Comes To The Eviction Business, The Company Loves Misery

City Paper Digi-Cam™
KICKED TO THE CURB: The remains of a home begin to pile up on the lawn during an eviction in Rosedale.
CARRY OUT: the “O Team” performs an eviction in the Pimlico neighborhood.
Otis Banks
O Team members sort garbage and personal property during an eviction in Rosedale.
City Paper Digi-Cam™
All Photos by Christopher Myers unless otherwise noted
FRIENDLY NEIGHBORHOOD FORECL0SURE MAN: Scott Smith inspects a foreclosed rowhouse in Pimlico

By Gadi Dechter | Posted 3/16/2005

“We done found dead bodies, we done found bears, we done found snakes,” says Otis Banks, warming up to his theme.
“We done found guns. We done found a house full of dog shit, a house full of human shit.”

The two young white men flanking African-American Banks nod in unison.

“Because this is what we do,” Banks continues, gesturing at the battered Pimlico rowhouse before them. “We come into people’s houses. We see people at their worst. We open people’s refrigerators and we see french fries from 1949.”

Nick Andraka and Scott Smith laugh in unison. The two men have never met before today. In fact, they are competing foreclosure “field contractors”—the men mortgage companies hire to hire men like Banks to throw delinquent borrowers out of their homes.

These are rough times to be in this rough trade, however. The booming housing market has put the pinch on the eviction business. In 2000, mortgage lenders filed 5,255 foreclosure petitions in Baltimore City, according to the Baltimore Neighborhood Indicators Alliance, a nonprofit organization that tracks foreclosure statistics. Last year, that number dropped to 4,466, echoing a national trend. According to the Mortgage Bankers Association, foreclosures nationwide have dropped to their lowest levels in four years.

“All that’s left are crackhouses and abandoned homes in Baltimore,” Andraka says. “Three years ago we were doing divorces in Anne Arundel County, good homes.”

“It’s the fucking economy,” Smith says. “Interest rates are lower, money is more accessible. People who had to rent can all of a sudden buy, and people who get into trouble can refinance or sell.”

Which is why Smith is welcome on Andraka’s job site. At Banks’ suggestion, Smith is considering the Pimlico property as a possible investment. Where others see misery, foreclosure men see opportunity. When things go bad, they benefit.

Things will go bad again, Banks reassures the younger men, both of whom have trusted him for years to execute inner-city evictions on behalf of their clients. Banks, 59, has been “putting people out” in Washington and Baltimore for more than 15 years, and he has total faith in the boom-and-bust cycle.

Andraka nods grimly. “What we are,” he says, looking at his compatriots, “are the few people in real estate waiting for a depression.”

In the meantime, they’re waiting for the sheriff’s deputy to emerge from the rowhouse and give the go-ahead to execute the housing court’s writ of possession on the property.

The informal eviction has already begun. On the sagging porch, a young black man with red eyes removes trash bags full of clothes from the house. This is the squatter they’ve come to evict. It’s a freak 60-degree morning in mid-February, but the man wears an orange hood and heavy winter coat. The teenage drug hoppers watching from the corner are similarly attired.

Also watching quietly from the lawn are Banks’ crew, eight black men ranging in age from early 20s to 60s, trucked up from D.C. for a Baltimore eviction. Half of them wear gray jumpsuits with Banks’ company name, o team, stenciled on the back.

Baltimore City Sheriff’s Deputy Michael Duke finally emerges from the property and declares it free of weapons and hazardous materials. The crew can go in now, he announces, and then drives off to oversee another eviction on West Rogers Avenue.

The crew begins changing the locks and winterizing the house. The young man with the red eyes drags his trash bags out of their way. He says he used to live here with his grandmother and two sisters. “She got tired of paying the bills, I guess,” he says. “I be all right, though. I been homeless before.” He walks away, leaving his bags on the neighbor’s porch. One of them has split open, revealing what appear to be clumps of wet clothes.

The crew doesn’t find any old fries in the fridge, but they do discover a soiled mattress, empty dime bags, and the smell of feces everywhere.

“That smell is very typical,” Banks observes. “You see, people are fucked up. They are the lowest thing. They are lower than whale shit.”

Banks claims he hardly ever feels sorry for the people he puts out. When asked why, he turns philosophical.

“Some people like to be taken advantage of because they need an excuse for failing,” he says. “They need an escape goat.

“Look,” Banks adds, offering an illustration of his theory. “If a group of guys on this street get together, and they grab another guy and throw him down and fuck him in the butt, is he a faggot?” He pauses. “If he like getting fucked in the butt, then he a faggot.”

Banks scowls. “You understand?”

Smith and Andraka burst into laughter. Good old Otis.

 

You might wonder how well the mortgage field service contractor, as he’s known in polite company, sleeps at night.

Just fine, as it happens. He’s got a roof over his head, after all, and righteousness in his heart. And in the slums of Baltimore, an enterprising worker can always make an honest buck in the foreclosure game. If the game doesn’t get him first.

Less than three years ago, Scott Smith, owner of the successful foreclosure field contracting business Spidey Inc. received a strangely familiar wake-up call at his Highlandtown rowhouse.

“I was two months behind on my mortgage,” Smith recalls. “The power had gone out. I was laying on my couch nursing a hangover on a Saturday and these two guys came to the door.” He smiles. “They were my competition. If I hadn’t been there, my locks would have been changed.”

Smith managed to avoid foreclosure by immediately selling his house and repaying the delinquent bank loan. That’s rare. Most foreclosure petitions filed in Baltimore City end with a court-ordered repossession of the mortgaged property.

Less rare is Smith’s hard-luck story. Other than Otis Banks, most of the subcontractors Smith employs to do the dirty work are drawn largely from the white hardcore punk scene in which he used to run, and have battled the same demons that plague many of the people they put out.

“I had a pretty heavy drinking problem, starting at around age 13,” says Smith, who grew up poor and fatherless in southern Virginia. He describes his hometown of Gloucester as a “very redneck, rural, hillbilly, pickup-truck-driving, Budweiser-drinking sort of place.”

An older sister turned him onto the Misfits around the same time he discovered booze, and like many outcast kids before him, Smith found in the music both an outsider identity and an outlet for anger. He started his first band, Skurj (“Ramones-ish punk”), when he was 15, and got his first tattoo (a Black Flag logo) a year later. Now 29, with short blond hair and a body entirely swathed in colorful tattoos, the pied piper of Baltimore foreclosure men grins at the memories.

“Those were the days,” Smith says with a nostalgic sigh. “The rednecks had long hair, Black Sabbath patches, tight blue jeans, and pickup trucks. We had camouflage pants and purple hair and mohawks. Whenever Skurj would play a party, the rednecks would show up because of the booze, and there’d be riots.”

After finishing high school in 1994, Smith tried his hand at construction work to finance Skurj tours around the Mid-Atlantic region. “I couldn’t keep a job, though,” he says, “because I was drinking and completely irresponsible.”

His girlfriend at the time was an office assistant at a Gloucester-based mortgage field-service company, and she hooked up Smith with a job as a subcontractor. For more than a year, he lived out of a van, securing and winterizing rural foreclosed properties that had already been vacated by the occupants.

“I would just break into the house, change the locks, eat the canned food they’d left behind, go for days without a shower,” Smith says. “You really start learning about yourself.”

He was also learning the mechanics of running his own business, which he named after his nickname and favorite comic-book character.

“Spider-Man was my childhood hero,” Smith says. “I think it was because he was a vigilante type, and he was an outsider.” He points to a full-figure tattoo of the superhero running along the inside of his left arm, the one he got the same day he incorporated Spidey Inc. in Virginia.

The framed 1997 incorporation certificate hangs in the basement office of the modest Greektown rowhouse Smith now shares with his girlfriend and 15-month-old son. The orderly home office is a testament to Smith’s determined climb to middle-class respectability. He appears to have framed and displayed every seal-embossed paper he’s acquired over the years. Alongside other incorporation papers are hung two wooden plaques from Who’s Who of Professional Management and course-completion certificates from the CCIM Institute. “It means you’re a Jedi Knight of real estate,” Smith says of the certification by the commercial real estate investing school.

The only evidence of the lifestyle Smith gave up when he quit drinking in 2002 is a record-release poster of Together We Fall, the hardcore act he joined after moving to Baltimore in 2001.

“I got sick of spending four hours on the road every day,” Smith says of his decision to go north in the mid-’90s, “and my sister was living in Maryland, so I moved up to the D.C. area.”

He continued to get assignments from his Gloucester client, but Smith discovered the inner cities of Washington and Baltimore so rich with foreclosure work that he had to hire his own subcontractors to meet the demand. He found ready recruits from among the hardcore scene back home. “You’ve got to be a little crazy to get into this business,” he says. At times, there’d be 10 Gloucester guys crammed into Smith’s Laurel apartment, sleeping on couches swiped from that week’s evictions. (Unclaimed personal property is one of the perks of the job.)

By 2001, Spidey Inc. had its own bank-client base and was servicing so many foreclosures in Baltimore it seemed like a good idea to relocate there permanently. Plus, the bar scene was better than in the D.C. suburbs. “We’d go out and have 300 beers every night,” Smith says. “I was totally out of control.”

Smith’s business was booming—“Baltimore was a real shithole in those days”—but running it from a bar stool at Wee Peter’s in Fells Point eventually became impossible. Four months after the eviction men came knocking on his own door, Smith took the pledge.

Still on the wagon three years later, he estimates that Spidey Inc. will complete more than 1,000 foreclosure-related jobs this year, providing six subcontractors with full-time work, and paying Smith enough to support his girlfriend and kid. He also plans to start building a house on a piece of land he recently purchased in Harford County.

Smith attributes his successful recovery to his work, which provides him with daily reminders about the consequences of irresponsible behavior. “The vast majority of the foreclosures we do are caused by drug addiction and alcoholism,” he says.

Actually, there are no good statistics on the reasons people lose their homes to foreclosure. Conventional wisdom suggests that job loss and illness—the primary causes of personal bankruptcies—are likely at root. Housing activists tend to blame predatory-lending practices of unscrupulous mortgage brokers, who trick low-income people with poor credit into taking out loans they can’t afford.

“Ninety-eight percent of foreclosures are related to house flipping, jacked-up fees, high interest rates, fraudulent documents on loans, or lack of inspections,” says Mitch Klein, chief organizer of the Baltimore office of Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, a nonprofit that works with the low-income communities disproportionately affected by foreclosures. “Very few of them are just because the person became unemployed and lost the house.”

Nonsense, Smith and his colleagues in the foreclosure trade say. Predatory lending is a marginal problem; the true culprit is human failure.

“It’s totally their fault,” Smith says. “It’s not like one day they wake up and their house is foreclosed on. You can’t pay your mortgage or your rent? Change your job. Change your lifestyle. Change your spending habits. But you have to change something.”

The tough-love message of self-reliance and individual responsibility is echoed by all the foreclosure men interviewed for this story.

“Hey, I understand. I’ve had hard times. I’ve lived on the street, I’ve been at the bottom,” says Scotty Powers, drummer in the Slumlords, a Baltimore hardcore band whose members have all served on eviction crews (No Cover, Nov. 24, 2004). (Sample lyric: “Banging down the door, guess who it is?/ An eviction crew full of punks and skins.”)

“I understand drug addiction is fucked up,” Powers adds. “But I can’t be sympathetic if you’re a crackhead and decided to smoke your mortgage payment.”

It’s after band practice, and the Slumlords are drinking beer in Powers’ Greektown rowhouse, which is furnished largely with eviction loot.

“It’s true,” chimes in Domenic Romeo, Slumlords guitarist and office manager of Spidey Inc. “You can always bounce back, no matter how shitty things get.”

Or, as Brett Oney, one of Spidey Inc.’s veteran subcontractors, more succinctly put it a few days earlier: “Quit being such a fucking pussy. Why do you have to be high when I’m out here being straight?”

 

Oney raises his hand to knock. Then lowers it and glances at his clipboard.

“The bank thinks this property is already empty,” he mutters, lighting another cigarette. “But if I’m not 100 percent sure, I ain’t going in.”

He tugs at his bunched-up blue jeans and steps back to re-examine his target: a single-family home on a quiet Park Heights side street, where boarded-up houses rot alongside relatively well-kept ones like this.

The drawn blinds in the window are a clue the house may still be occupied. “For some reason, when people leave a house, they always leave the blinds up,” Oney says. Also, he notes, the grass looks recently cut and there’s no mail in the box.

Then again, there’s a BGE shutoff notice on the doorknob dated from two weeks ago. A tough call.

He walks across the street and confers with an elderly neighbor. “Well, she says they took off,” he says a moment later.

Brett Oney’s two assignments today are known as “initial secures,” which entails breaking into a property, changing the locks, boarding up any broken windows, and assessing it for needed cleaning and repairs.

Because the bank believes this foreclosed house has been willingly vacated, the law doesn’t require its repossession be done in the presence of a sheriff’s deputy or 10-man eviction crew, making the solo “initial secure” the most potentially dangerous assignment for a field-service contractor. Especially in neighborhoods like this one, where vacant homes often become impromptu stash houses or shooting galleries.

Oney, 30, has specialized in foreclosures for six years. Unlike Smith, who had a gun pulled on him at a Patterson Park job, and Otis Banks, who once watched a delinquent mortgager shoot (and then get gunned down by) a sheriff’s deputy in Prince George’s County, Oney’s never run into serious problems. He figures he’s been lucky. Too lucky.

“The odds are good of me getting fucked, going into a house that’s a gambling house or a hotboy house,” Oney says, retrieving a toolbox from the back of his brand-new Toyota Tundra pickup. “If they think you’re coming in to rob them, they’ll kill you.”

Then again, this high-school dropout doesn’t pull in $75,000 a year from Spidey Inc. to stand around and contemplate occupational hazards.

He walks back up to the door. He bangs on the door. No answer. Satisfied, he attaches a pair of pliers to the doorknob.

“We’re all self-taught locksmiths,” he quips, wrenching off the knob and swinging open the door.

As he inspects the vacant, trash-strewn house, Oney recounts war stories from previous home inspections, most of which involve either junkie homeowners or human excrement, often both (“ . . . and these were feces out of somebody’s ass who probably wasn’t very healthy . . . ”).

Oney prides himself on being able to deduce the human story behind each foreclosure by what’s left behind, but the first floor yields few clues. The living room is empty, except for a tattered love seat and “Jessica Davis for Mayor” posters tacked to the walls. (Davis, an evangelist preacher and self-proclaimed “Prophet to the Nations,” ran an unsuccessful mayoral campaign in 1999. More recently, she has marketed a “God inspired” self-help system called “Word Harvest,” whose web site features the customer testimonial “I believe I am coming out of debt supernaturally with this System!”)

There’s about 12 cubic yards of garbage in the kitchen, Oney estimates, calculating ahead for tomorrow’s “trash-out,” where he’ll bring along a day laborer to clean out the property. His eyes light up when he picks up one of the black garbage bags. “That’s so heavy and so soft, I can just tell it’s something disgusting.” He opens it up. “My God, it’s just a huge piece of mold.” His voice drops to an awed whisper. “No, it’s a pork chop.”

Like Smith and the members of the Slumlords, Oney is convinced the vast majority—“about 85 percent”—of mortgage foreclosures in Baltimore are caused by human degeneracy, usually in the form of drug addiction. He says he routinely finds “hundreds of crack vials” in houses like this one.

This property would appear to be the exception. There are a child’s purse and pink hair rollers in one of the upstairs bedrooms, but no vials. Oney kicks loose change around the floor. “This wasn’t a drug house,” he concedes. “You’d never find nickels and dimes in a drug house. Probably just a single mother and kids.”

Even the bathroom is in decent shape, though the toilet lid is shut. “Now that toilet,” Oney says, rubbing his blond goatee thoughtfully, “it just might have something in it.”

He looks disappointed when he finds the bowl empty. Human waste constitutes a “hazardous material” and would bring in extra money tomorrow when he does the cleaning job.

Not that Oney would get his own hands dirty. “You just get a junkie and give him rubber gloves and 10 bucks,” he explains. “In Baltimore, people will do anything for 10 bucks. That’s the magic number,” he says of the street price of a vial of narcotics. “Seriously, if I ever get out of this business, I’ll go into bounty hunting. For 10 bucks, people would give up their own children.”

Brett Oney wasn’t always an expert on urban psychology. He grew up hunting and fishing in the Virginia backwoods, not far from Smith. “The worst city we had growing up was Newport News,” he says. “You might get lucky and see a whore.”

Oney’s people were coal miners from West Virginia who moved east to work the Newport News shipyards. After dropping out of high school, Oney says he got a “horrible minimum-wage job” delivering cinder blocks for concrete companies. For amusement and extra cash, he threw parties in the woods by his house.

That’s how Oney met his future employer, Smith, whose band would frequently provide musical entertainment at the parties. Though more of a redneck than a rocker, Oney nevertheless appreciated the spirit of Skurj. “Every time they played our house it would turn into the biggest brawl,” he happily recalls.

Oney eventually ran afoul of local law enforcement—he’d rather not say how, exactly—and felt it was prudent to leave the state. He joined the great Gloucester migration to Smith’s apartment in Laurel in the late ’90s, where he discovered in himself a talent for foreclosure work.

“I thought it was cool,” Oney says, “going into the ghetto, doing evictions, breaking into drug houses. It’s the funnest job in the world, for the first year. Keeps you on your toes, so your day flies right by.”

But first he had to find dependable workers. “To find an eviction crew,” Oney explains, “you gotta get guys off the street.” Coming from rural Virginia, he figured he’d just round up some alcoholics. “But then I realized they’re no good, ’cause you don’t want the sheriff smelling alcohol.”

There were plenty of underemployed Baltimoreans hanging around who didn’t stink of booze, but Oney soon realized they tended to come with a different set of baggage. “We’re driving off to an eviction and they’re all in the back of the truck going, ‘I’m ill, I’m ill,’” Oney laughs, marveling at his own naiveté. “I never knew. I was like, suck it up, you know?”

He eventually came to respect the peculiar rhythms of heroin addiction, and learned that if properly managed, a junkie can be a dependable worker. Though Oney leaves the evictions to Otis Banks these days, he still relies on day laborers for clean-outs and other odd jobs. He says he only employs addicts who snort the drug. “I don’t want any shooters,” Oney explains. “Less risk of them having a disease.”

Oney affixes new locks to the doors at the Park Heights property and drives to his next assignment, a corner single-family house in the West Baltimore neighborhood of Rosemont. Two young men were murdered a block away from here in the last two weeks, and several loitering teens glare at Oney when he pulls up, doing to him what David Simon’s Homicide detectives call
“eyefucking.”

Oney is unmoved. “They’re just confused,” he says, careful not to return the eye contact. “Can’t figure if we’re cops or here
to buy.”

Eventually, the corner boys lose interest, and moments later no one on the busy West Baltimore street seems to notice the burly white man pounding repeatedly on the house door, then kicking it in with his boots, knocking it clear off its hinges.

Oney’s billings for the day: $270.

The foreclosure business has been good to Brett Oney. A shiny pickup, a nice house in Pasadena, and money left over for hobbies. “I have a lot of handguns,” Oney says, on the drive through East Baltimore back to the Spidey Inc. offices in Parkville. He gestures at the people on the street. “I have the guns they rap about.”

His latest addition is a stainless-steel Desert Eagle .44, which retails for more than $1,000. “So big,” he says, “it doesn’t even look real.”

Still, Oney acknowledges that six years of embodying “the man” in the black inner city has taken its toll on his psyche. “In a way it does make you prejudiced,” he says. “You see how much black people really hate white people. That’s the worst part of the job. Being white.”

And his own perspective has been similarly narrowed by the nature of his work. In Oney’s eyes, Baltimore City is rarely more than a huge ghetto hopelessly hooked on drugs and government checks.

“I was driving around the other day,” he says. “And I was in the middle of the city, but there were all these white people walking around. All these pretty girls.” He pauses. “You ever hear of Charles Village?”

 

“Fuck, no.”

That’s Scott Smith on whether he’d want his infant son to follow his father’s footsteps into the foreclosure business. “I’d want him on the real estate investing side of things,” he says, “but not in this shit.”

No, no, no.”

That’s a chorus of Boh-drinking punks in a Greektown rowhouse on whether they’d want to raise a family in a Greektown rowhouse. For all their obviously heartfelt working-class pride, the Slumlords aspire to the same bourgeois status they ridicule in “Trust Fund Oi Boy,” a standout track on their debut album.

Guitar player Domenic Romeo just got his real estate broker’s license. Scotty Powers plans on getting into the real estate investment game. Vocalist Jeff Perlin, who writes all the lyrics, lives a double life in Mount Washington as a “software-related” professional with an employer he’d rather not alienate by mentioning.

Field work has enabled every foreclosure man interviewed for this story to join President George W. Bush’s “ownership society.” They all own their own homes and, as self-employed contractors, run their own small businesses. And despite tattoos, exotic gun collections, or punk-rock attitudes, they want the same things their fathers probably did.

“I’d love to freaking retire and just invest full-time,” says Brett Oney, who has recently, under Smith’s guidance, started buying and selling vacated real estate. “I used to fuck with stocks during the dot-com days,” he says in defense of his aspirations. And how did that work out for him? “Pretty good,” he insists. “At first.”

And just as they feel no need to apologize for their ghetto jobs, neither do they have any compunction about their county dreams. “Bottom line is, labels don’t pay my bills,” Powers growls. “It doesn’t matter what some asshole calls me. He can call me a sellout or whatever the fuck.” He adds, “Now, if he wants to pay my mortgage, he can call me whatever he wants. Until then, fuck you.”

Of course, foreclosures don’t stop at the county line, even in the hottest real estate market. About an hour after wrapping up the Pimlico eviction, Otis Banks watches dispassionately as his O Team crew empties the contents of a single-family home in the solidly middle-class Baltimore County neighborhood of Rosedale.

The delinquent homeowner is gone, but she’s left behind evidence of a hopeful life, which quickly piles up on the green lawn: couches, mattresses, suitcases, wicker lawn furniture, an oak bureau, dining room chairs, bookcases, lamps. Golf clubs.

“She was a real estate agent,” says neighbor Martha Kielek, who comes out to watch the eviction. “Very pretty girl, young girl. Maybe around 40. Very attractive.”

There was an older boyfriend, Kielek says, who was helping the owner fix up her house, which she’d bought in mid-2002. They’d just installed the aboveground pool in the backyard and were remodeling the kitchen.

“And then she just disappeared,” Kielek says. “I guess she couldn’t afford the payment and fixing up the house, and that house needed big-time remodeling.” Kielek covers her mouth as she watches two O Team guys toss another sofa onto the lawn. “I just cannot fathom it,” she says. “Never in a million years would you expect something like this here. It’s a mystery.”

Banks is unimpressed. “It’s never a mystery,” he says. “She just bit off more than she could chew.”

Inside the house, crew members rummage through the first floor, still choked with stuff. The kitchen cabinets are full of china and glassware. There are ceramic figurines posed in a display case and inspirational posters on the wall: “A friend will joyfully sing with you on the mountaintop.”

One of the O Team men drops a pair of candlesticks into his jumpsuit pocket. “The wife likes this kind of shit,” he says. Does he feel sorry for the woman in the family photos, still smiling down at them from the fireplace mantle? He shrugs: “I pay my bills.”

Smith stands in what was once the real estate agent’s home office. Like his own study at home, the walls here are lined with framed certificates of merit and achievement.

“I’m telling you,” Smith cheerfully says, “it could happen to anyone.”

Banks pokes his head in. “You should buy this house, too, Scott.”

Just as Smith gets that Jedi-Knight-of-real-estate gleam in his eye, one of Banks’ older crew members comes downstairs to show off a bedroom discovery: a crack pipe. There’s more where that came from, he says. Indeed, scattered on the floor of the bedroom are stems, marijuana bowls, tampons, Mylanta, dime bags—and the by-now familiar smell that lingers when people use the facilities long after the water has been turned off.

“Man, I love human beings,” Banks says, when he hears about the drugs. “But I hate people.”

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