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Film Independent Wed 9.14.2016

Indie-pendent Study: Navigating the Mortgage Crisis with ‘99 Homes’

Each month in Indie-pendent Study, writer Su Fang Tham explores films that have inspired her to dive into specific areas of interest, prompting her to research and learn about the subjects being depicted, no matter how odd or obscure, in detail well beyond the scope of the original film. Who says watching movies can’t also be educational! 


99 HOMES (2015, dir. Ramin Bahrani)

“America doesn’t bail out the losers. America was built by bailing out winners, by rigging a nation of the winners, for the winners, by the winners.” –Rich Carver (played by Michael Shannon), 99 Homes

Released in theaters one year ago next month, 99 Homes is critically acclaimed director Ramin Bahrani’s latest exploration into America’s broken social order. This time, his focus is the great “Foreclosure-gate” of 2010, which in the wake of the economic crisis a few years earlier saw widespread and erroneous home foreclosures and eviction proceedings perpetrated by several large banks and realtors.

The film’s brutal opening sequence seizes the audience’s attention right out of the gate: blood spatters on cheap pink tiles in the bathroom of an unassuming home moments after the homeowner kills himself, revolver lying at his feet as his lifeless limp body sits on the toilet. In the living room, slithery and shark-eyed real estate agent Rick Carver (Michael Shannon, who earned a Best Supporting Male Film Independent Spirit Award nomination for the role) is furious: how dare the resident he was trying to evict interfere with his grand plans to kick him out and immediately resell the property for a pretty penny!

In this dog-eat-dog world, Carver doesn’t give a damn about whose life he’s destroying or who he might piss off with his duplicitous practices (he straps a pistol to his ankle every time he leaves the house). He prides himself as a man who turns lemons into lemonade, having made millions from evicting underwater and unemployed families in Orange County, Florida from their houses and then removing the appliances, air-conditioning units and pool pumps in order to receive Fannie Mae reimbursements… to put the very same items back into those homes!

The cutthroat eviction practices of Carver’s Orlando real estate firm also includes bringing his own team of movers and sheriffs deputies to kick underwater residents out of their homes, giving them scant moments to evacuate with essentials like photos, medications and documents. “The two minutes is a courtesy,” one of the deputies barks to Dennis Nash (Andrew Garfield) when he and his family learn this the hard way.


Nash has been struggling to make ends meet for a while, with construction work drying up due to the subprime mortgage crisis. When Carver’s entourage shows up to kick his family out, Nash endures the indignity of seeing his young son watch as all of their belongings are strewn over the front lawn for everyone to see—a scene that will break any parent’s heart.

Through sheer coincidence and desperation on both sides, Nash starts working for Carver, stripping out appliances and pool pumps from houses, managing a fictional keys-for-cash scheme and executing “robo-signings” (see explanation below) on Carver’s behalf. Their collaboration soon bears fruit, to the point where Carver offers to buy back Nash’s old house for him; Nash would pay Carver going forward as if with a bank loan. As Carver continues to entice Nash with the potential riches of his real estate schemes, will Nash be lured to the point of no return? Or will he cease just in time to redeem his soul and recalibrate his moral compass?


Further Study

The one thing I was most curious about when watching 99 Homes was whether the scheme to strip appliances out of foreclosed homes in order to make Fannie Mae pay to reinstall them really happened. While I wasn’t able to find anything definitive about this, I did find out the following:

  • Despite the fact that the Foreclosure crisis began six years ago, Bahrani’s choice to set the film on Orange County, Florida is still very relevant today, where one in every 1,069 homes were foreclosed on as recently as July 2016.
  • At the height of the crisis in 2010, 32,000 foreclosure cases were pending in Orange County (Florida) alone. One Seminole County judge scheduled 300 foreclosure cases to be heard during three days.
  • According to the Orlando Sentinel, one of the areas where the film departed from reality was how fast the eviction order was carried out. In the film, Carver’s team came evicts Nash and his family almost immediately after the court adjudicates his eviction case. In reality, the system was so backlogged it usually took years until the homeowner was actually kicked out. And in real life, families were given at least a day’s notice before being escorted out—not two minutes.
  • “Robo-signing” is the illegal mass production of forged mortgage documents to falsely evict homeowners, which was widely perpetrated during the foreclosure crisis.
  • In 2015, PBS reported that even though the foreclosure crisis began with subprime mortgages, it later expanded to prime mortgages as well. Findings from a NBER (National Bureau of Economic Research) study which looked at prime and subprime borrowers from 1997-2012 indicated that “Between 2009 and 2012, 656,003 more prime than subprime borrowers lost their homes.” One of the reasons is the fact that prime borrowers account for a much large piece of the market at 60% during the sample period, whereas even at its peak, subprime borrowers only covered 20% of the mortgage market.


In a year when Hollywood has been devoting some overdue attention to the financial crisis of the last decade (The Big Short, Money Monster), it’s helpful to learn about the true stories and hard facts behind some of these fictional portrayals.

Benjamin Franklin once remarked that there are only two things certain in life: death and taxes. And we can probably add a third to the list… GREED. As long as greed remains a part of human nature, some of us will always have to pay the price for the dark side of ambition.

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