Hark! A property in distress!
'Distress' is a word with a hint of Victorianism. There's something chivalrous about it. The damsel in distress has been a trope in Western bourgeois culture for centuries. Think of a fainting woman tied to railroad tracks in an early silent film. She must be rescued! We must draw upon our virtue and bravery in order to save the virgin from the treacherous villain and restore honor to society! Later on, cartoons and modernism in general parodied the damsel in distress, to the point where now it's difficult to imagine the seriousness with which it was once employed. But I think, in spite of irony and suspicious undercurrents, the symbol has just as much power now as it ever has.
Take a brand-new use of the word, brought into existence by the aligned interests of realtors and bankers: the distressed property. Hark! Yonder mcmansion doth send a distress signal! Fifty exterior spotlights are blinking at once and the American flag rising from the kidney mound out front doth fly at half-mast! We must rescue this asset from the treacherous forces of . . . the market! The bad market! The one that isn't free enough! Or something.
This article in the Salt Lake Tribune offers a clearer picture of how the distressed property phenomenon is playing out along the Wasatch Front. Approximately 40% of homes on the market right now are distressed properties—or short sales and foreclosures, the homes of borrowers who can't make their payments any more. Loan modifications, the homeowner-friendly, seemingly reasonable solution, keep hitting the brick wall of banks who are just as locked into a maniacally-constructed chain of value as the rest of us. They are at the mercy of others up the river to whom they parceled everything out, with the pre-2007 (and post-2007) larger institutional supposition that greed creates wealth. Meanwhile, the market stratifies and the middle ground, supported by credit and government policy, slips away.
Hark! I spy a sinking ship! The middle classes are fainting behind their portholes! The emergency flotation devices are losing air and the sharks doth encircle the wreckage! Who knows what horrors lie in the murky depths!
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