KAREN RIDER HAS ONLY ONE HOUR to auction off 22 homes. Standing on the Multnomah County Courthouse steps at precisely 10 am—as she does every Monday—her normally loud, plain-spoken voice picks up speed until she's spitting rapid-fire, unintelligible jargon.
"Northeast Roselawn Street, Portland, Oregon, nine seven two one one! That's a 'call the trustee'!" Rider shouts as lawyers, jury members, and defendants swirl past her to court. On this morning in late February, there are 22 foreclosed Portland homes to be bought and sold on the courthouse's indoor steps to anyone with the foresight to show up with several hundred thousand dollars.
Seven stone-faced men lean against the marble walls that enclose the steps. Most have sleek, Bible-sized laptops open on one hand, digging up info about troubled houses as Rider shouts out the sales as fast as possible. The men do not talk to each other. They are each other's competition. When asked what they do or who they work for, they'll grin, laugh, or tell you to do some research.
"We buy houses," offers one in a North Face jacket, "as cheaply as we can."
The volatility of the market is made physical here on the courthouse steps. During the course of the routine Monday auction, lenders call to cancel the sale of around nine of the homes.
"That means someone is having a conversation somewhere," explains Rider, an independent document server, meaning that someone is giving the families a few more days or months to fight off their debt. She crosses nine names off her list.
Banks and lenders foreclosed on 3,500 houses in Multnomah County last year. Many of those wound up auctioned off just like this, on the courthouse steps to a small crowd of subcontractors.
Most of these homes pass without a single bid, and aren't auctioned. In the last year, says Rider, the market selling price of 90 percent of houses at auction would not even cover the debt owed on them. No one wants the houses, so they revert to the lender—which isn't thrilled to be playing landlord to houses swamped with toxic debt. The lenders typically evict the people living in the house, who often go bankrupt or back to renting. The only people who can turn a profit on this regrettable endgame of the national financial crisis are the laptop-toting subcontractors, who must take big risks to earn lean livings.
"Going once, going twice, sold! Back to the beneficiary!" rattles off Rider. This phrase is rote for her after nine years of auctioning off foreclosed homes. It means everyone lost money.
Halfway into the auction on Monday morning, a well-dressed Ukrainian woman rushes into the courthouse foyer. She tells Rider, softly, that her house is on today's auction block but that she has just declared bankruptcy. Homeowners can declare bankruptcy to buy some time and renegotiate their mortgages, but this woman doesn't have her official Chapter 13 receipt. Rider explains she needs the receipt to stop the sale.
"Fly like the wind!" says Rider as the woman, dressed in a long black coat and high heels, runs out the courthouse door to retrieve the all-important document.
After spending her morning auctioning off homes to no one, Rider gets onto the second part of her job: driving around the tri-county area, getting paid $10-35 per document to hand out foreclosure and eviction notices.
Foreclosure happens when people who borrow lots of money to buy their homes run short on cash and are then unable to make their monthly loan payments. In Oregon, after a person skips three payments, the lender hires someone like Rider to tack a notice on their front door reading: "You Are in Danger of Losing Your Property." The notice urges homeowners to call their lenders to negotiate, but most never do.
"It's difficult for people to get in touch with their loan servicer, if they even know who it is," says State Senator Suzanne Bonamici. Since mortgages are often chopped up and sold to many different loan companies, it can take homeowners numerous phone calls and voicemail messages to actually talk with the people they owe money to.
"A lot of times people don't know what questions to ask, they don't know who to call," says Bonamici, the sponsor of Senate Bill 628, which would require loan companies to sit down with people on the brink of foreclosure and actually negotiate face to face rather than through signs taped to front doors.
This January, Oregon was ranked the fifth in the nation for the state with the most foreclosures. While the foreclosure wave is slowing down in other states now infamous for boarded-up homes, like Ohio and Florida, the situation in Oregon is getting worse. Actually, 218 percent worse. That's the increase in the number of Oregon homes that fell into foreclosure this January versus the first month of 2008. The Center for Responsible Lending predicts that without legislation to help teetering Oregon homeowners, 20,100 houses will foreclose this year.
Back on the courthouse steps, Rider appears to be stalling for time. She slipped the young Ukrainian woman's home to the bottom of the auction stack—but it's been almost an hour and Rider has only a few sheets of paper left. Rider puts down her messy stack of files and devotes 20 long seconds to holding the courthouse door open for a lawyer with a limp. The subcontractors have all left. The house is worthless to everyone except the desperate Ukrainian family. Finally, there's no putting it off.
Rider reads off the woman's address and asks, to no one in particular, "Do I have any interested parties?" She takes a very deliberate sip of coffee. "Going once, going twice, sold! Back to the beneficiary."
And then just like any cheesy film worth its slot on Lifetime, the Ukrainian woman rushes through the courthouse doors... 10 minutes too late. She hands over the receipt stamped with proof that she is indeed bankrupt. Rider files the important scrap with the auction record for the lender to deal with and doesn't mention to the woman that it could be too late for her. The woman, a mother of two, shakes Rider's hand in thanks.
"Oh honey, you are so welcome," says Rider from the top of the stairs. "We're all in the same boat."
After nine years of auctioning off other people's foreclosed homes, Rider struggles to pay the $1,500 a month on the mortgage for her little home off North Marine Drive.
"I'll have days where I'm making only 30, 40 bucks and I'm driving like a banshee," Rider says Monday afternoon, smoking a cigarette behind the wheel of her car bound for Beaverton. "I'm living on the edge right now. At some point I'll just have to cut my losses and become one of those Americans who declares bankruptcy."
Unlike cable news economists, Rider doesn't find anyone to blame. Not the profiteering subcontractors who treat the foreclosure crisis like online gambling, not the banks who would rather evict homeowners than work out a repayment plan, and not the "loser" homeowners.
"I try to treat everyone with humanity. It's not a judgment call on my part. For whatever reason, we get ourselves into these situations where we don't see any clear answers," says Rider. "Life just moves so doggone fast. It's hard to stay on top of it, you know?"