By Rachel Dornhelm
At a suburban development in South Merced, sidewalks and electrical hook ups are signs that houses were to be built here. At one of the first full blocks of homes, I knock and Dina Gonzalez opens the door. She runs an in-home day care, her bright personality matches the center’s primary colored walls.
But stepping outside she grows more somber. Gonzalez points at a row of neat stucco houses and says that nearly all of them have been foreclosed on.
“Just me and the person at the end is the ones that kinda saved our home,” Gonzalez says. “But back there, the other line, most of these three lines, most of the people is new. … Across the street this family lost their house, and she lost her job, too. So she couldn’t afford — not even rent an apartment. So they didn’t have no choice. They were looking, living in shelters on the street by the train.
Gonzalez says she was lucky and got a loan modification. But she’s seen other home day-care providers fold, as families lost jobs and moved away. In the midst of all the upheaval, Gonzalez could see voting was the last thing on people’s minds.
“A lot of the parents and a lot of people in the community start feeling discouraged. They didn’t feel trust in the economy and the system, and it’s kinda hard to be picking up and feeling trust in the White House.”
Gonzalez herself is politically engaged. She has political signs on her lawn and tried organizing neighbors to sign a petition to help renters being evicted from foreclosed properties. But she’s more the exception.
I visited this neighborhood with Sheila Petersen, a recent UC Merced graduate with longtime ties to the town. Petersen saw the distress in this community when she documented the effects of the foreclosure crisis as part of a University study. She says from her own hard experience she knows: being an engaged citizen can be a luxury.
“When you live in a less than ideal environment, you tend to put your head down, dig in, and just live your life,” Petersen says, “because you’re just busy dealing with your everyday concerns. You don’t have time to perhaps even imagine a better world, because the bills need paying, the baby needs shoes, and it’s time to cook dinner.”
Now two UC Riverside professors have published a report that showed that in neighborhoods with a high foreclosure rate people were less likely to turn out to vote. They crunched numbers from the 2008 election and found that losing a house had an effect on voting as strong as poverty or a lack of education.
Co-author Martin Johnson says displacement from foreclosures compounds existing obstacles to voting. ”This does disproportionately affect communities of color, lower income communities,” he says, “and these are communities that are already at participation disadvantages.”
The foreclosure effect is just one of many factors that can impact a race on the margins. But given how hard California has been hit by the mortgage meltdown, Johnson says, it could swing some races.
“Certainly at the local level where we have more competitive elections — sometimes that are lower turnout — these patterns of depressing turnout could have an effect on some outcomes,” he says.
The study was conducted across California and, in West Oakland, didn’t surprise resident Donna Terry. Sitting at the kitchen table in her shotgun bungalow, she says she has volunteered with a group that tries to register voters.
“We have had different community based events. People walk through but don’t engage,” Terry says. “And I think, I know for sure, it has to do with the displacement of people. I mean people are weary.”
Foreclosures can leave people focused on survival. If they wind up renting they may have less stake in their new communities. They may not be thinking about registering to vote at a new address. The community fabric can fray when the human connections are lost. Terry says on her block, in the shadow of the historic Mt. Zion Missionary Church there are only two longtime residents left.
“You’ve got to talk one-on-one, so you can tell me that my neighbor perhaps is having health issues and needs a ride. Or her car is in the shop,” Terry says. “So you know I can ask when I go to vote, you want me to give you a ride? So you have to engage with people. You have to see what going on.”
California gets better marks than many states for ensuring people can still vote even if they’ve lost their homes, but it’s still an uphill climb.
Listen to Rachel Dornhelm’s story: