'99 Homes' film mostly on point depicting Orlando foreclosure culture

Article Courtesy of The Orlando Sentinel

By Mary Shanklin

Published October 12, 2015


The slogan for a new Orlando-inspired foreclosure thriller being released nationally this weekend is: Greed is the only game in town.

The critically acclaimed film "99 Homes," starring Andrew Garfield and Laura Dern, is based on a fictional cutthroat Orlando real-estate broker evicting underwater and unemployed Central Florida families from their homes and then stripping out appliances and air-conditioning units in order to get Fannie Mae to pay for replacements.


While the big screen reflects many aspects of reality in one of the nation's leading foreclosure markets, some parts of the film were a stretch, said one real-estate agent experienced in foreclosures and evictions.


"The reactions people had in losing their homes seemed realistic, although I have never experienced the violent reactions portrayed in the movie," said Winter Park real-estate agent David Welch.

"99 Homes" portrays Orlando as a place where residents either struggle financially or figure out a way to enrich themselves. There is little middle ground. While workmen brawl in a parking lot over missing tools, married real-estate broker Rick Carver, played by Michael Shannon, sports a Rolex watch and drives his Land Rover to the lakefront home he keeps for his lover.


Florida, long ranked as the top state for foreclosures, has the country's worst rate of disbursing $1 billion in federal foreclosure-relief funds, according to a new report by a federal enforcement agency.

Writer and director Ramin Bahrani told a public-television station in California that he chose Florida because it was an epicenter of the housing crash.

"At first, when I thought of foreclosures, I assumed this was going to be a realistic and depressing film," he told KCET. "But when I got to Florida, I realized the film was going to be a thriller, and it was going to be fast-paced."

The movie touches on myriad story lines from a region where more than 120,000 houses were sold in foreclosures or short sales during the past eight years. From children being shuffled among schools to forged documents forcing foreclosures, the movie reflects many of the pains Central Florida has experienced since the housing market collapsed starting in 2007.

An early courtroom scene showed unemployed construction worker Dennis Nash, played by Garfield, trying to explain to a judge that his bank has been telling him two things: It was trying to modify his mortgage but also foreclose on him. The refrain was common among struggling Central Floridians in 2010 as banks held out hope for trial mortgage modifications while simultaneously pushing through foreclosure proceedings.

That scene also touched on the foreclosure quagmire in the courts, showing a judge hurrying proceedings because he's got "40 more cases that day." It reflected what was known as Florida's "rocket docket," with more than 32,000 foreclosure cases pending in Orange County alone during 2010. One Seminole County judge scheduled 300 foreclosure cases to be heard during three days.

"The judges have been overwhelmed by the number of cases over the past several years, leaving them little time to address each case," Welch said. "However, they typically give people who take the time to show up for a hearing a reasonable amount of time to vacate."

In one of the biggest departures from Orlando's foreclosure scene, deputies arrived to evict the Nash family almost immediately after the court ruling. In reality, Florida foreclosures were so bogged down in the courts that they took years to complete. And deputies give at least a day's notice before eviction instead of two minutes.

A scene familiar in some Orlando-area, working-class neighborhoods was the sight of toys, clothes and furnishings strewn across the front yards of evicted families.

That part is reality, Welch said: "Nobody is surprised when we show up, but some are still not out, and we do have to take their belongings to the curb," he said.

Even though it was filmed in New Orleans, the movie is steeped in Orlando visual cues, including patrol cars and officers from the Orange County Sheriff's Office and Orlando Police Department, Orlando Magic posters, aerial video of downtown Orlando, wall maps of Orange County and a developer seeking inside information on a planned intersection for State Road 414.

What might not look familiar are red-brick homes and a downtown high-rise named Benson Tower, which happens to be in New Orleans.

The film captured another slice of Orlando, with families crammed into extended-stay hotels because their credit was ruined and they lacked deposits needed to rent homes or apartments. Even now, thousands reside in the hotels, and local governments are working on grants to cover upfront cash needed to move them into rentals.

When the evicted single dad in the movie needs some cash, he starts working for Carver and gets $250 for shoveling sewage from a house where the previous owner backed up the sewage lines and scrawled "kill bankers" across a wall. At another house in the movie, a homeowner pirated water and power from a foreclosed house next door.

Similar scenes played out across the broad spectrum of Central Florida neighborhoods during the last eight years. In a blue-collar area of Poinciana, a homeowner and his roommate camped out in their foreclosed home, filling buckets of water at night from a neighbor's spigot. And in a gated Windermere neighborhood, the homeowner contracted with a salvage company to strip everything from the liriope grass bordering the drive to the soaking tub in the master bath.

"I have seen vandalism and such in the REO [real-estate-owned] properties that have been taken back by eviction," Welch said. "And I have heard plenty of people express their anger at the banks."