Housing Crisis

I thought my Skippack adventure began in January 2008 when I put a considerable portion of my and my wife’s life savings down for a house in Biltmore Estates, right in the heart of the village. But the real adventure didn’t begin until about 13 months later, in April 2009, when the builder of my swanky new Skippack home, TH Properties, declared bankruptcy.

For my neighbors and myself, the housing crisis was no longer a matter of editorials in the Wall Street Journal. We looked outside our windows and saw economic reality in the form of unfinished construction, abandoned equipment, overgrown weeds, debris, a closed sales office and unleveled plots of land.

Everything is a learning experience. Or at least this is what I tell my friend Bob Biddle. Bob and I share an unusual connection: While I was absorbing the shock of the TH Properties bankruptcy as a new homeowner, Bob was reeling from the same crisis from the opposite side of the settlement table: He was a senior finance associate for TH Properties. He, along with his partners, negotiated the deals and financial arrangements that held the company together, at least until April 2009.

My friend and TH Properties Finance Associate Bob Biddle at the Roadhouse Grille in Skippack.

My friend and TH Properties Finance Associate Bob Biddle at the Roadhouse Grille in Skippack.

Now Bob and I walk across the divide that separates company from consumer to share a beer at the Roadhouse Grille in Skippack. Once we are settled and served, I ask Bob to tell me about his career at TH Properties. He explains that he had been hired immediately after graduating from Penn State in 2004. His job: To help obtain the financing needed to build new housing developments. Back then, the housing market was still booming.

With his career on a steady curve, Bob married the woman he had dated since high school and looked forward to starting a family. The career curve, however, did not hold its smooth trajectory. TH Properties was hit hard by the rapid decline in the housing market: On April 20 2009, TH Properties closed its doors to business. On April 30, the company filed for bankruptcy.

Prospective homeowners lost deposits; vendors lost hundreds of thousands of dollars. Some people lashed out. The day after TH Properties announced they were closing their doors, a crowd of reporters and angry homebuyers gathered outside the company headquarters. Threats were made against the owners of the company, the remaining staff members and even their families. The windows of TH Properties office building had to be covered with paper to allow business, now in a crisis state, to continue. To avoid the mob, Bob had to enter and exit the office through the back door.

Rumors and accusations spread across the Internet like wildfire. Some got under Bob’s skin, especially claims that the company principals had engaged in criminal activity or stashed away money and other assets before declaring bankruptcy. He knew people had a right to be angry, but he was not prepared for the level of anger, even hatred, some people expressed. It was a bitter awakening; the end of his young executive innocence.

“What” I ask, “did you learn from the experience?”

Bob looks back at me directly, almost defiantly: “Other people’s opinions don’t matter. Only your own convictions matter,” he answers. For a moment, he seems like a different man, older and grimmer; but soon the familiar casual, cheerful attitude returns.

Bob tells me he did what most people do when an employer is in crisis; he prepared his resume. However, he continued to work for TH properties, putting in ten and twelve hour days taking the first steps to rebuild the company. One change in the terms of his employment: He was no longer getting paid. A month earlier, his wife had given birth to their first child. Daddy was now a volunteer finance associate.

Unlike many homebuilders who jump from a bankrupt project to the next opportunity, the owners of TH Properties wanted to return to business to make good on their commitments. They wanted to complete the housing development where I live, Biltmore Estates in Skippack Village.

For more than a year, TH Properties sought the legal permission and financing needed to return to complete Biltmore Estates as well as some other developments. For Bob, this meant an ongoing series of negotiations and court hearings involving banks, creditors, local governments and other parties affected by the bankruptcy. During this time, I became involved; I volunteered to do what is best described as public relations work on behalf of Biltmore Estates to counter the negative publicity our development had received in local newspapers as a result of the bankruptcy.

For the first time, I test outWriter standing on walking trail at Biltmore Estates, a development in Skippack coming back after bankruptcy.

For the first time, I test out our long-awaited walking trail at Biltmore Estates, a development in Skippack coming back after bankruptcy.

A few weeks ago Bob called me to tell me that TH Properties obtained the right to build again at Biltmore Estates and secured the needed financing. Now when I leave for work I see hopeful signs: trucks, workmen, equipment, gigantic metal drainage pipes, and freshly-leveled plots of ground, now clear of weeds and debris. A winding paved pathway behind my deck is the first indication of a walking trail promised long ago. I am looking forward to the full flowering of my community, Biltmore Estates.

As a homeowner here I never suffered the harsh effects of the past months felt by some people in my community. My wife and I had bought a beautiful, intact home. The homes that surrounded us were intact as well. Perhaps if I had lost my deposit or had to live in an unfinished house, I would be less eager to share a beer with Bob Biddle. A dark thought passes through me. If my circumstances or timing had been different, would I look at the engaging young man beside me at the bar with anger and bitterness?

I look up from my beer. Bob is telling me about how he had to go home and ask his wife for permission to work without pay. He says he will always be grateful for the support she gave him when he stayed with TH Properties. I think to myself, “at least let the harsh economic times we live in bring us together rather than tear us apart.”

Strange as it sounds, there is an aspect of living in an unfinished development that is pleasing to me. I walk outside and see unfinished buildings with Tyvek sheets rustling in the wind. It reminds me that we live in a world of risk: A person can do all the right things such as work hard, save for a down payment, and negotiate a good price, and the result is still not guaranteed. Nothing in our life is guaranteed. Likewise, things most precious to us, such as the people we love, are not promised to us forever and therefore should not be taken for granted. I thought it good to have a symbol reminding me of this truth each time I looked out my kitchen window,

What’s more, in our corporate, mass-marketed world rarely do we get to know the people who make the products we rely upon. I know nothing about the people who built the chair I sit in or the keyboard I type upon. Thanks however to the bankruptcy and subsequent events I got to know Bob and other men and women who built the house where I live. I saw them struggle with their circumstances and decisions, just as I have struggled with my own. My house now has a back-story. It has a soul: A soul in addition to all of the conveniences of a new construction property.

Bob asks me if I want another beer. Think about it: The housing market in the United States collapses and the country and much of the rest of the world goes into a deep recession. It reverberates here in Skippack; and it leads to me sharing a beer with Bob Biddle at the Roadhouse Grille. Yes, Bob, one more beer.

Writer explores metal drainage pipe at Biltmore Estates in Skippack, Pa.

Writer explores metal drainage cylinder at Biltmore Estates in Skippack, Pa.

My wife Debby strikes pose in metal cylinder, which will be used to rebuild our community

My wife Debby strikes pose in large metal cylinder to be used to rebuild our community