It's been 10 years, but Brian Harter can still see the little girl running around in her diapers. She greeted him in her house, holding a hotdog and a Coke.
Harter, a Dane County sheriff's deputy, has kicked hundreds of people out of their homes over the past decade. As one of the county's two full-time civil execution officers, Harter has the job of making sure that people who haven't paid their rent or mortgage clear out when the courts say they have to. He's seen some harrowing stuff - guys blowing their heads off or walking away from everything they own, just like that.
Nothing he's seen bothers him as much as that little girl. It was back when he was fairly new at evictions, doing it part-time.
"I still remember we walked in and there was a 2-year-old running around in diapers, blond curly hair, the same age as my daughter was at the time," Harter recalls. "The dad cared more about getting his beer and cigarettes out of the house than he did his daughter." Harter helped the little girl get dressed. "The deputy I was with said, 'You've got to let it go.'"
Harter, 42, likes his job and generally doesn't have any trouble letting it go at night: "If you're going to let it bring you down, then maybe you shouldn't be doing it."
But these days, Harter and his partner, Brenda Haney, 47, are busier than ever, cleaning up the messes caused by spiraling foreclosures.
Sometimes it's a big mess. They must coordinate the moving van, have cars towed, help the residents find a place to go, call in mental health or senior assistance if needed, have the Humane Society pick up the family pet, make sure the kids have their medicine and favorite toy. Sometimes the house becomes a crime scene if they find drugs, an abused child or a dead body.
Once, while foreclosing on a third-generation farm in the town of Primrose, they had to find a place for the cows.
"They need to be milked every day," notes Haney, who grew up on a farm. "So we had to set something up for safekeeping of the cows until [the courts] could figure out what to do with them."
The deputies see themselves as troubleshooters and mediators, looking for ways to help whenever and however they can, within a brief amount of time. Sometimes, they do as many as five evictions a day.
"We choreograph everything," says Harter. "We try to resolve everybody's issues in an hour or so."
It's just past 8 a.m. on a recent Thursday and Harter is driving through Madison's far east side. He and Haney work an early shift, usually getting into the office around 6 a.m. to do paperwork and plan their day. Morning hours - between 7 and 9 - are the prime times for fieldwork.
"You catch people by surprise when they're just getting up," Haney says. Later in the day, people getting the heave-ho from their homes are more likely to be belligerent, at work or hiding.
Besides foreclosures and evictions, the pair collect court-ordered payments. (They have the power, for instance, to empty a cash register of a business). They'll also repossess cars and appliances - another growing part of their work. Occasionally, they'll even collect a pet that was a prize in an ugly divorce case.
This morning, Harter is foreclosing on a house near I-90. "This is your average, blue-collar neighborhood. They may not know their neighbor is in duress," he says, scanning addresses. "It's probably this one with all the junk in the front."
Sure enough, it's the one: a three-bedroom ranch house on Leo Drive, which sold for $183,000 in 2005. There's an attached garage and a van in the front driveway. The cover to a pickup truck bed lies in the yard.
When the deputies are notified of a pending eviction or foreclosure (as ordered by a judge), the first visit is to let the resident know it's time to go. They try to be as helpful as possible.
"I try to see what's going on, and I try to ascertain if they know what's going on," says Harter. "If it's a renter, they may not know. If there are elderly or children involved, I see if they have a place to go."
During the summer, Harter must often hand the eviction notice to a teenager, the only one at home. "That sucks. Usually I call the parents at work and say, 'I'm about to give an eviction notice to your kid,'" he says. "And then the kid freaks out. I tell them to calm down, talk to your mom. What kid wants to be told they're being evicted?"
After residents are notified, sheriff's deputies can legally evict them 24 hours later. But unless they're destroying the property or disturbing neighbors, Harter will usually give them a little more time, especially homeowners.
"I feel when it comes to a house - I don't mean to belittle people who live in apartments - but people who have lived in a house for five years have accumulated stuff."
In Wisconsin, people who are forced to leave their homes have rights. It's not legal just to dump their stuff into the street. Their possessions have to be put in storage, at a bonded warehouse, for 60 days - and the owners given a chance to reclaim it.
During the actual eviction, Harter and Haney see themselves as implementing a process, not taking sides. They make sure the person leaves, but also that the law is followed. "We're protecting the citizens of Dane County," says Harter. "We're protecting the defendant's rights if he wants his stuff back."
There won't be any melodrama on Leo Drive this morning. The front door is unlocked. The owner, a 37-year-old man, is gone, leaving behind odds and ends. In the living room are a couple of couches and some boxes. The place looks like he left in a hurry, taking what he could. One of the bedrooms has some blankets and toys.
"The kids are the real victims," says Harter. "That kid may not know where his favorite stuffed pillow is or his favorite blankie."
Another room is bare except for 15 cases of empty beer bottles neatly stacked in the middle of the room. In the basement, the deputies find two ammo boxes of shotgun shells (Harter puts these in his trunk, to store at the sheriff's office) and a hunting jacket. But no guns. The owner hasn't been picking up his mail. "You start to wonder what's going on in people's lives," Harter says.
Increasingly, the residences the deputies foreclose on are still occupied. "Statistically, more and more they're there, about 85% of the time," Harter says. "It ranges from the 'I'm not moving' to the procrastinators. Some are in the middle of moving. If they're moving, I will tell them, 'You're done moving.' Then my mover takes over. Those get ugly because the defendant is out the money for the truck."
Usually, the deputies can talk defiant residents into leaving peacefully. If need be, they can arrest them for obstructing justice or disorderly conduct.
Before tossing them out, Harter will make sure they have the essentials: cell phone chargers, stuff for work, any medication they need, their kids' favorite toys. "I tell them, 'You can't come back to the premise or you'll be charged for trespassing,'" he says.
The real estate agent will then change the locks, and the movers go to work. They write down everything they find and pack it into the truck. Sometimes, they'll insist the house be fumigated first, if it's infested with bugs. Possessions are stored for about four months, and then auctioned off if not claimed.
In foreclosures, Harter and Haney are almost always caught in the middle, between a frustrated bank and a desperate resident. "I try to be the person in that setting, where emotions are high, to ease the transition," Harter says. "But a lot of times, there's nothing I can do - you have to leave."
Harter has seen his share of reprehensible behavior, like residents destroying houses out of spite, or lawyers lying to them about deals they've made with residents. "I'm totally in the middle," he says. "And people lie to me on both sides. I have to stress that I'm a disinterested third party."
As the housing crisis has unfolded, Andy Lewis at the UW's Center for Community and Economic Development has tracked how Wisconsin compares to the rest of the country in foreclosures.
What he's found is alarming. In 2000, the state had 6,407 foreclosure cases filed in circuit courts. Last year, the number was 23,638. Of those, 1,203 were in Dane County, 5,335 were in Milwaukee and 1,028 were in Racine (the top three counties for foreclosures).
Not all of these actions led to people losing their homes. In some cases foreclosure proceedings are started but the owners are able to refinance or reach a deal with the bank. But, it's an alarming increase. In the first quarter of 2009, Milwaukee had 1,773 foreclosure cases and Dane County 393.
In 2008, foreclosure cases increased 21% in Wisconsin, with the highest rates in Rock, Kenosha, Milwaukee and Racine counties. While it does not have one of the highest foreclosure rates (the percentage of homes for which foreclosure proceedings are initiated), Dane County saw one of the state's sharpest increases, up nearly 50%.
"We're still well below the rest of the state, but there's been some dramatic increases, which makes me wonder if we're catching up," Lewis says. "It gets kind of depressing going over these numbers."
Lewis, of course, doesn't know if the worst is yet to come: "I don't have a crystal ball." But his guess is probably better than most, and he doesn't think Dane County or the state have hit bottom. He expects this will happen in the third quarter of this year, after which the housing market will start to improve.
There are cities in the U.S. where one in every 12 homes is going through foreclosure, says Lewis. In Dane County, the foreclosure process started for one in every 175 houses in 2008. In the state, it was one for every 109 homes.
Lewis points to a study by the Pew Charitable Trusts that estimated one in every 60 homeowners in Wisconsin will be foreclosed on in 2008 and 2009. The national rate is one in every 33 homeowners.
Harter and Haney say they started to see a spike in foreclosures about a year ago. By May 2008, they'd already done more than all of 2007. "This is going to be another bad year," Harter says. They're not just seeing more foreclosures, but also more car and property repossessions.
There are signs of improvement in the housing market. There's been a 2% increase in housing construction from March 2008 to March of this year, says Dan Miller, a Realtor who writes for Dane County Market, an online real estate journal. "We're seeing a lot of increased interest in the starter home. The first-time tax credit is definitely spurring the market right now. We're not seeing the same interest in the more expensive homes. It's definitely a tale of two markets."
But foreclosures are still up. "It means there will continue to be more inventory out there," says Miller. "For that reason, it'll be more of a buyer's market than a seller's market for a while."
Sheriff's foreclosure auctions are surprisingly drab and uneventful. There's no auctioneer delivering rapid-fire lines as bidders try to outmaneuver one another for a steal on a lakefront mansion or some historic house. There's no pounding of gavels to quell hushed ripples of excitement.
Rather, foreclosure auctions take place every Tuesday morning in a windowless room in the Dane County Public Safety Building. About 20 real estate agents and attorneys scribble in their notebooks as the auctioneer reads the docket number and address of each house. Vending machines hum in the background.
The seller, usually a bank, submits an opening bid, often by fax. The auctioneer says slowly, "Going once, going twice, sold." And that's it. At one recent auction, this process was repeated more than 20 times, without a single bid being offered. It's baffling why anyone would even show up. But every week, more or less the same real estate agents, speculators and attorneys show up, scribble in their notebooks, joke with one another and leave.
There is money to be made, insists Jan Haak, a broker who heads Haak Realty and has been coming to these auctions for about 30 years. She bought three homes in February and sold one of them the next day.
"I've never been to a sale where everything is bid on," she says.
Often no one bids because the opening bids - the minimum sought by the bank - are too high. Realtors need a wide margin to make money, she says. A speculator would typically only be able to resell a foreclosed property for about $20,000 less than it's appraised for, she says. Then there are closing fees and renovation costs to consider. "On average," says Haak, "you'll probably put in $10,000."
Last year, there were more than 800 scheduled auctions in Dane County; this year, there've already been 340. (The actual number that are auctioned is lower, since many sales are scheduled and then postponed or canceled.)
After the sheriff's auction, a writ of assistance is signed by a judge, essentially an order kicking the former owner out of the house. (Sheriffs in some places, including Chicago's Cook County, have refused to serve them.)
For Harter and Haney, there's not much difference between an eviction from an apartment and a foreclosure from a home. They handle them both the same way. But emotions run higher in foreclosure cases.
"What we're seeing with foreclosures is people are mad," Haney says. "They're destroying everything. They're leaving the windows open and letting the pipes freeze."
Brian Harter has been a law enforcement officer for more than 20 years. He started as a cop in Marshall, before joining the Dane County Sheriff's Office. He began helping out with foreclosures and evictions about 10 years ago, and then took the job full-time four years ago. He and Haney are the only officers who work these cases full-time, though other deputies help out when needed.
The allure of the job is simple for Harter: "How can I apply the [statute] book to a situation and give the defendant their rights, the plaintiff their rights, and be a mediator?" he asks.
And it's not just property laws that get enforced. "I'm also a cop. If I walk in there and they're doing drugs or there's neglect on the children, I'm going to take action. Then it goes from the civil to the criminal."
Haney, meanwhile, has been a deputy for 22 years and a full-time civil execution officer since 1995. She got into civil execution work when she was pregnant with her son. She loved the challenge of the work: "Some of it was really fun, like when you repo cars, trying to find people you couldn't find. I'm not sitting in a courtroom or a jail all day. I'm out in a squad car."
But the job has its ugly moments.
About two years ago, Haney was evicting the mother of a young child. "He was eating Cheetos off the floor," she recalls. "All around him were used condoms. His mom was a hooker." Another time, she came across a little girl in a roach-infested home: "Cockroaches were just crawling all over her. All she could say is, 'Mom, am I going to be able to go to school in the morning?'"
In such situations, the deputies try to give the kids some attention. Once, they made kids ice cream cones from some ice cream in the freezer, "which was just going to go to waste," Harter says.
"We try to keep the kids busy, say, 'Hey, let's go pick out your favorite toy,'" Haney says. "They may not see the rest of that property again."
Cockroaches, lice, fleas and other vermin are an occupational hazard. The deputies keep white suits - they call them "bunny suits" - in their cars for such situations, to keep off the bugs. Haney once put her bunny suit on a mentally ill woman who was infested with lice when she transferred her to social services, to keep her car from getting infested.
Because Dane County has good services for the elderly and mentally ill, these cases are generally among the easier to deal with. "I'll have better luck [finding housing for an evicted] 80- or 90-year-old woman than I will finding a home for a family," says Haney.
Especially in the colder months, the deputies will help families find emergency shelter. They drove one family to relatives in Jefferson. Others they take to the Salvation Army.
Four years ago, the pair went to evict a man from his house on Hooker Avenue on the east side; just minutes before they arrived, he shot himself. "With all the foreclosures we've been doing," says Haney, "I'm surprised we haven't seen more suicides."
Just last week, the two deputies foreclosed on a couple where the wife hadn't told her husband of the pending eviction. She pleaded with them not to kick them out or tell her husband. "You see people at their lowest," Haney says. "They're just begging."
But, as bad as kicking people out of their homes can sometimes be, there are worse alternatives in police work. Says Haney, "I'd rather do this any day than go to another accident."
Harter, for his part, still grapples with the image of the little girl in diapers. "That one will stick with me forever," he says. "Sometimes I think about where that little girl will go. I don't know. You've got to let it go. Does it wear on you after a while? Yeah."