Buyers from all over America — some of whom had never heard of the Illinois town — came searching for wealth amid the Rust Belt ruins
PEORIA, Ill. — A block that had once been home to more than 100 people was down to six who lived amid the ruins of another era. There were gaping holes in roofs and crumbling foundations. Some houses were so bad that even the squatters had quit on them, and now only raccoons and rodents sought them out for shelter.
And then, for reasons that no one in Peoria could fathom, people from all over America began snapping them up. By early summer, seven houses on this block of West Lincoln Avenue had sold to buyers from Los Angeles, San Diego, Long Island, Tacoma, Wash., and other far-off places.
Among them was Jayvon Michael Culver, a barber in Salt Lake City, where in the waning days of the pandemic the median price of a single-family home had raced past $515,000, far more than Culver could ever afford to spend. With a few frenzied clicks and emails, he had grabbed 2011 West Lincoln Ave. for $4,500, sight unseen.
“First house I ever bought in my life,” said Culver, 36.
[In the fracturing American economy, any house can inspire a bidding war.]
Most of the buyers had acquired their homes through online auctions. None had ever actually been to Peoria; nor did they have any plans to move there. And yet they bid by the dozens, if not hundreds, on homes throughout Peoria’s dying south end, drawn by the desire to own property, an essential piece of the American Dream that had eluded them in the places where they lived and seemed to grow more distant with each passing month. Somehow, they had found a version of that dream online — and in a place called Peoria — that seemed almost as good. “I felt like I had finally found a cheat code,” Culver said.
Now he was the owner of a house in a city that he had until recently never heard of, on a block whose ever-dwindling numbers included a 20-year-old named Benny Cook. In the spring, amid the buying frenzy, Cook and his fiancee had rented one of the block’s last habitable homes and cleaned out the soiled clothes and spoiled food left by the homeless people who had been staying there. For protection from the addicts who sought shelter in the block’s abandoned houses, Cook bought a guard dog, security cameras and an AR-15 rifle.
“If you ain’t scared to go in an abandoned house at night, you ain’t scared to do something to me,” he said.
It was the first place Cook could call his own and a place where he and his fiancee hoped to start a family. “I can make it our dream house,” he said. Some 1,500 miles away in Utah, Culver was starting to make plans too: for his first trip to Peoria and for the house and land he believed might someday change his life.
An aerial view of West Lincoln Avenue in Peoria on June 9. Malkebu Moore, a long-haul trucker from Philadelphia, takes a break on the porch of the house he bought on West Millman Street in Peoria. Moore inspects the house, which he purchased sight unseen in an online auction. (Photos by Ricky Carioti/The Washington Post)
The story of West Lincoln Avenue’s bizarre summer land rush starts with the deindustrialization of the Rust Belt, which had hollowed out Peoria’s once-thriving south end. It spans decades of growing inequality, which had turned America into a place of winners and losers with less and less in between. The trigger, though, was the pandemic, the recession and the recovery.
In much of the country this spring, low interest rates, bidding wars and pent-up demand had sparked a real estate boom. In California, the median single-family home price hit a record $818,260, up nearly 40 percent since the start of the pandemic. Utah prices surged 30 percent during the same period. By June, economists were using words like “unprecedented” to describe the rise and speculating that in some markets the dream of homeownership might be forever out of reach for most middle-class Americans.
Peoria had the opposite problem: hundreds of decaying homes that it couldn’t afford to demolish. In 2020, pandemic-related budget cuts had forced the city to suspend all non-emergency teardowns. Many of these abandoned houses were funneled to the county’s tax foreclosure auction, which that September included 190 properties, more than double the previous year.
On the ground in Peoria, these homes were worthless. Online, though, they had value. A 31-year-old investor from Texas bid $751 — $1 over the minimum — on virtually every property in the auction and walked away with 54 of them. He sold 43 to an investor in Sarasota, Fla., for about $1,400 each.
The Sarasota investor put a few of the homes on bid4assets.com, an online auction site, each week this spring and early summer. “Great Opportunity,” his pitches usually began. Lower down, a disclaimer cautioned: “In rare cases house might be demolished or burned down.” Most of the houses sold for $3,000 to $6,000.
Ross Black, the city’s community development director, likened the investors who bought houses in bulk to vultures trying to extract the last bit of value from a dying place. They had almost no incentive to sink a penny into the homes before they flipped them, usually for a small profit. Black had more sympathy, he said, for the “unfortunate buyers” bidding for them online. In early May, he pressed play on his office phone, where a woman from Stockton, Calif., had left him a voice-mail message.
“I am a new property owner in Per-rora. … I can never say it,” she began. “There has been a huge misunderstanding.”
Soon, Black was driving to the house, down potholed streets and past an abandoned brick elementary school with Gothic-style windows and soaring smokestacks, a remnant of the days when Peoria’s south end was home to 42,000 people, many of whom walked to work at the hulking factories along the river. Now the area was down to about 12,000. The shell of a school had been slated for demolition a decade ago, but the city lacked the $1.2 million necessary to tear it down.
Minutes later, Black’s car pulled to a stop in front of the Stockton woman’s home, which was boarded up and missing most of its roof. Weeds were growing in the bathroom sink. All of which led Black to ask the question that he had been pondering for weeks: “How does someone in Boston or Salt Lake City or Los Angeles end up buying a home in Peoria that they’ve never even seen?”
A room in the house Malkebu Moore purchased for around $5,000. (Ricky Carioti/The Washington Post) Chairs and a grill sit outside Benny Cook’s home, one of the last habitable houses in the 1900 block of West Lincoln Avenue in Peoria. (Joshua Lott/The Washington Post) A paper fan Moore found on the floor of the house he bought. (Ricky Carioti/The Washington Post)
There were so many ways to answer that question on West Lincoln Avenue.
For a Boeing worker from Tacoma who got a layoff warning notice last year, 2102 West Lincoln was his “emergency plan” in case the economy cratered, he lost his job and he couldn’t pay his mortgage.
For a laid-off union representative from Los Angeles, the decision to spend $5,300 on 1915 West Lincoln came down purely to price. “When I saw something that cheap, I decided to spend on it,” she said as she rushed off to a job interview in June.
For Culver, the answer to the question could begin in Littlerock, Calif., a threadbare desert town outside Los Angeles where he was raised by his grandmother, who owned a few rental units that she had sold when Culver was still a child. “When I was a kid, it seemed like all the old folks owned property,” he said. “I didn’t want that to die with me.”
Or it could begin in Salt Lake City, where he worked as a barber and had scraped together enough cash to finance a 2016 Porsche SUV and buy a 1988 Chevy Caprice that he jacked up on 30-inch rims and drove with the windows down so he could hear screamed compliments from the sidewalk. To Culver, property was the “most ultimate thing you could own,” and the one big thing that had always seemed beyond his means, until a day in March when he was scrolling through his Instagram feed. Up popped a video of a 19-year-old who was talking about buying and selling homes with little to no money. “If he can do it, I can do it,” Culver recalled thinking.
He began Googling and after a few clicks landed on bid4assets.com, where much of America seemed to be within his grasp. Empty lots in Arkansas and New Mexico were going for $800 and run-down houses in West Virginia and Pennsylvania were selling for a few thousand. Even a neo-Gothic church in Illinois was up for grabs.
“It was overwhelming,” said Culver of the rush he felt as he took in the possibilities, and soon he had bid on more than a dozen properties. Most of the auctions ran for a week, with bids starting at $1 and rising in $50 or $100 increments. Culver’s first win was a plot of land in Arkansas he snagged for $800. On his computer screen the property was just a square of grass and weeds next to a narrow ribbon of blacktop in a town he’d never heard of called Blytheville. It was the first piece of property he had ever owned, and to Culver it felt like the beginning of something big. “I’ll never sell it,” he told a friend who was watching over his shoulder as the auction closed. They bought a bottle of champagne to celebrate.
Soon, Culver was setting alarms on his phone so he could make sure he was in front of his laptop and not cutting hair during the final frenzied minutes of an auction, when it seemed like everyone was putting in bids. In total, he spent about $20,000.
He won a commercial building in Dallas City, Ill., for which he was the only bidder, a few small pieces of land somewhere in New Mexico and an empty lot on West Lincoln Avenue that the Sarasota investor had put up for bid.
The investor offered to sell him an adjacent house on West Lincoln for $6,500. Culver was interested but wanted to visit Peoria before he bought there again. Then the investor cut the price by $2,000, and suddenly Culver decided he couldn’t afford to wait.
“I’d never seen a house for $4,500,” he said.
He texted a picture of the brown and white, two-story home to his brother, who wondered if it was a scam, and to his Uncle Jay, an actor who appeared in the 1990s in movies alongside Mel Gibson and Arnold Schwarzenegger.
“Koo!” he replied. “What city?”
And he shared it with his 16-year-old daughter Nikkia, who lived with him in Salt Lake City and had decorated her room with Bible verses reminding her that God was always watching after her.
“Look, baby,” he said.
Her first thought, which she didn’t share, was that her father’s new house was ugly. Then she asked if they were going to move there.
“No,” said Culver, who was trying to imagine life on West Lincoln Avenue using an online photo of his new house and what he could glean from the fish-eyed pictures on Google Street View. He assumed Peoria was poorer than his hometown of Littlerock or Los Angeles’s Compton neighborhood, where he had family. Even the cheapest homes in both those places sold for far more than $4,500.
“To me it’s more like Nepal,” he said. “The people are probably really nice and humble.”
The townhouse complex where Jayvon Michael Culver rents a home in Salt Lake City. The median price of a single-family home in the city hit $515,000 during the pandemic. Culver, 36, drives downtown in Salt Lake City in his classic Chevy Caprice. A view of West Lincoln Avenue in Peoria, where Culver bought a house for $4,500 in an online auction that he has yet to see in person. (Photos by Ricky Carioti/The Washington Post)
Around the same time Culver was buying 2011 West Lincoln, Cook was walking through his south end neighborhood and spotted a man fixing up a West Lincoln Avenue duplex that he had purchased at the Peoria County tax foreclosure sale for $750. Cook asked him about a job. The man replied that he didn’t have work but was hoping to rent out the unit on the second floor.
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The outside looked rough, but to Cook it was a way out of his grandmother’s apartment and a difficult childhood that included a three-year stint in foster care, a mother who struggled with drug addiction, a father who died of cancer when Cook was 9, and two half brothers who had been murdered nearby.
“I fell in love with it,” Cook said of his new home.
He planned to strip the peeling blue paint from the exterior and promised his fiancee, NeNe, that she could pick the new color. Inside the two tacked posters from their favorite shows, “Stranger Things” and “Rick and Morty,” to the clean, white walls. NeNe, who graduated from high school in May, added her glitter-covered mortarboard bearing the message: “All it took was faith, trust n’ pixie dust.” They hung their high school graduation tassels from the television.
And then one sweltering Saturday in June, when the public swimming pools were either closed due to a lifeguard shortage or filled to capacity, Cook decided that what their new home really needed was a pool. Not the little, inflatable kind that people set up for splashing, but a big, aboveground pool of the sort that he had always wanted as a kid. He was unemployed, having quit a $12-an-hour warehouse job that he found stressful and depressing. But he and NeNe had some money saved up from stimulus checks, a stint on unemployment and her job working full-time at a fast-food stand.
Benny Cook, 20, and his fiancee rent one of the few livable homes on this block of Peoria’s West Lincoln Avenue. (Ricky Carioti/The Washington Post)
NeNe found a lightly used pool for $400 on Facebook Marketplace, and Cook and his brother drove to pick it up later that afternoon. They stayed up until 5 a.m. Sunday digging out a flat spot in the grass and putting it together by moonlight.
The next morning, Cook spent the last of his cash on an extra-long garden hose. His duplex didn’t have an outdoor faucet, so he crossed a muddy, trash-strewn alley to an empty house that had a working spigot. Cook had inspected all the uninhabited homes on the block in the first days after they moved in and knew which were frequented by drug addicts and squatters, which were too far gone for humans, and which still had running water or lights.
Soon, water was rushing out of the garden hose. Cook leaned over the pool’s railing and dipped his hand in the cool, crisp stream. “It’s getting up there,” he said, thinking of the pool party he was planning that evening for family and friends. “Pretty soon we’re going to have a pool.”
Around him, life on West Lincoln Avenue continued as usual. At one end of the block, a half-dozen elderly drunks gathered under a shade tree sipping vodka. Sometimes, when they were feeling lucky, they would stop by Smith’s Corner Market to buy lotto scratchers or cigarettes. “Those guys are the forgotten souls of Peoria,” said Aaron Smith, the store owner, from behind a pane of cracked bulletproof glass. “They’re just waiting on a casket.” They were also, Smith said, his best customers.
Across the street, the congregation of the New Beginnings Worship Center of the Apostolic Faith gathered to pray for each other and their city. The plain white building had been vacant for several years before the congregation bought it in 2017 for $25,000. “When we first started, the mold was so bad that I couldn’t stand it in here,” said Luwanda Ogilvie, 58, the church secretary and music minister.
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Four years later, the church still couldn’t afford to fix the air conditioner, so big fans blew stale air over the small flock, which on this Sunday numbered about a dozen people. Ogilvie shook her tambourine and led the congregation in song. “The blood of Jesus will heal your body!” she cried. The youth minister delivered the sermon. “The reason we saw another sunrise is not because of our might and strength,” he preached. “It’s because of the Lord’s mercy and grace.”
That evening, a little after 9 p.m., about two dozen family and friends gathered around Cook’s new pool. It was the first-ever party at a place he could call all his own and most likely the block’s first housewarming in decades. The water was now only knee-deep, but Cook’s nieces and nephews, who were splashing and shrieking, seemed not to care. “You so little you can really go swimming in there,” Cook teased one of his nephews as he climbed into the pool.
Cook built a fire for s’mores and then disappeared upstairs to grab a twin-size air mattress that the kids used as a makeshift pool float. “That’s some ghetto s—,” someone joked.
The neighborhood grew dark, and eventually the kids went inside to play video games in Cook’s living room. Outside, Cook and his friends were sitting by the pool when Cook noticed smoke in the distance and then an orange glow coming from a few blocks away. Soon he was bounding up the stairs.
“Big-a– house fire!” he yelled excitedly.
Everyone gathered again by the pool, where they watched white smoke from the blaze drift across the cloudless, black sky and listened to the emergency radio traffic on a cellphone app.
“That’s one of my biggest fears,” Cook said, “coming home to a fire,”
“My biggest fear is that you’re asleep in the house,” one of his nephews replied.
By 1 a.m. the party had ended, Cook’s family had gone home, and all was quiet but for the buzz of the occasional car on West Lincoln Avenue and the sound of water trickling from the garden hose into Cook’s half-full pool.
Benny Cook cleans the pool he bought for $400 on Facebook Marketplace and installed outside his house. Cook walks through a deserted house across the alley from his home. Cook checks his mailbox. (Photos by Joshua Lott/The Washington Post)
Slowly over the course of the summer, the distant buyers made their way to Peoria to check on their homes. Malkebu Moore, a long-haul trucker from Philadelphia, pushed open the unlocked door to his house on West Millman Street and stepped over piles of rotting food, used condoms and feces smeared across the floor and walls. Minutes later, he was back on the sidewalk catching his breath when a prostitute propositioned him.
“How are you?” Moore asked.
“Drunk,” she said. “What are you selling?”
“I’m not selling,” Moore replied. “I’m buying. I bought that house. I’m going to fix it up.” But, by that point, Moore knew the structure wasn’t worth rehabilitating. A few days later, city officials found a dead body inside.
Two blocks south, the West Lincoln Avenue buyers weren’t faring any better. “It’s a goner,” said the Boeing worker from Tacoma of his new house. “I’m now looking at plan B, whatever that may be.” The owner of 1915 West Lincoln, the former union representative from Los Angeles, said she wanted to “punch someone in the face” after seeing her home in person. She tried calling contractors. “Because of the neighborhood, nobody wants to work there,” she said.
Culver had exhausted his savings to buy his properties, and by mid-July was still short the money to make the trip to Peoria and see them. “I know I really need to go,” he said.
In pictures online, he had noticed a crack that ran the length of his house where the siding met the foundation, and he had begun researching alternatives in case the structure was too rotted to repair.
His cousin had seen something called a Boxabl accessory dwelling unit on Instagram and mentioned that celebrities were buying the $50,000 micro-homes and putting them in their backyards for their kids. “Complete right out of the box,” the ad promised. “Setup in just one day.” Culver wondered if a tiny home fashioned out of old shipping containers might be even cheaper and more practical. He had seen them online, and they didn’t look too bad.
Even though Culver knew that he probably wouldn’t have the money to build Boxabls or much else on his property any time soon, he held fast to his dreams. He started subscribing to real estate newsletters that promised to teach him how to make “$5,000 an hour” flipping houses. And he pitched his daughter, who was about to start her senior year of high school, on joining him in the real estate business if she didn’t go to college.
For motivation, Culver liked to go for drives through some of Salt Lake City’s most upscale neighborhoods, where homes sold for more than $1 million. He turned into a neighborhood just down the road from the elementary school where his daughter worked as a part-time custodian. “Look at this one,” Culver said as a sprawling two-story compound emerged through a gap in nine-foot hedges. “It wraps around the entire block.”
When Culver first ventured into these neighborhoods, he had expected he would see mostly BMWs, Mercedes and maybe a few Ferraris. Instead, he saw lots of Hondas, Toyotas and Chevrolets. “I love how humble they are,” he said.
Sometimes Culver took his daughter with him on these drives, but usually he went alone. His favorite houses were the modern ones with Asian-inspired statuary, manicured gardens and artfully placed boulders. He steered down another a quiet, tree-lined street with a burbling creek and peaked roof lines that mirrored the mountains on the outskirts of the city. There he spotted a group of teens walking down the sidewalk. “So, these are rich kids … really, really privileged,” he said. “It’s such a blessing to have your kids be privileged. They are really well taken care of.”
Because Culver was a mobile barber and cut people’s hair in their homes, rather than in a salon, his business hadn’t taken a huge hit during the pandemic. He typically made $75 to $100 a haircut with tip. He liked the way the right haircut could restore a person’s self-confidence and the way his best customers treated him as an old friend.
Lately, though, that didn’t seem good enough. Culver thought about his credit score, which was “poor,” and about Jeff Bezos, whose net worth had somehow grown by $70 billion in 2020, despite a recession and global pandemic. (Amazon founder Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post.)
He thought about the movie “The Founder,” which chronicles the rise of Ray Kroc and McDonald’s. In a pivotal scene, Kroc realizes that the real money in his business doesn’t come from selling food, but rather from land the company leases to franchisees. “You’re not in the burger business,” Kroc’s chief financial officer tells him. “You’re in the real estate business.”
Culver also thought about his ancestors, freed slaves who had been promised, but never given, 40 acres and a mule as reparations. How might his life be different if that promise had been kept?
“If you have to work for every dollar that you make, then you’re not making it,” he said. “If I have to physically get up and go to work for my next meal, then I am getting by, but I am not living.”
The townhouse complex where Jayvon Michael Culver lives in Salt Lake City. (Ricky Carioti/The Washington Post)
There were many visions of how the summer land rush might end on West Lincoln Avenue. Peoria officials were sure that it would turn out badly for everyone.
Some of the new homeowners would flip their properties and perhaps extract a little bit more money from an already broken place. Those who couldn’t find a buyer would become overwhelmed by the amount of work required to fix their homes and stop paying taxes, triggering yet another tax foreclosure in three years. The houses would return to auction in slightly worse shape — a process that would repeat itself until the structures were beyond any hope of repair. “It’s very frustrating,” said Black, the Peoria development official. “Every month these properties take a step closer to demolition and a step further from someone being able to renovate them.”
[In the fracturing American economy, any house can inspire a bidding war]
Meanwhile, a new crop of more than 650 properties — including seven houses and empty lots on the same block where Culver’s house sat and where Cook was living — were headed to the tax foreclosure auction scheduled for Aug. 27. It was by far the biggest auction Black could remember in 29 years of working for the city, and he worried that the bulk buyers would once again snap up most of the properties.
Cook had a different vision for the duplex where he was living and his block on West Lincoln. Two days after his backyard party, his pool was finally full. He hiked himself up on the air mattress and dipped his toes in the water.
“Decent,” he said as another summer day stretched out in front of him.
He had been trying to get a job and had applied for positions as an exterminator, a forklift operator and in laying concrete. He briefly toyed with the idea of becoming a video game streamer. “Why not try to make money doing something you love?” he asked. But he dropped that plan when he realized how hard it was to attract a big online audience. Eventually, he landed a job with a steel company, working at the rail yard.
For now, though, he was floating in his pool imagining what life must have been like when all the houses on the block were full of factory workers and their children. “Look at all the stuff back here,” Cook said, pointing to the towering shade trees and backyard garages crammed full of decades-old junk. “Why was this the block to give up on? This is one of the main blocks. Who would want to leave this?”
He gazed up at the rotting, abandoned house in front of his duplex. Paint hung in strips from its siding, revealing wood the color of weathered bone. Another winter and a few big snowstorms, he guessed, might cause it to collapse. City officials would then have to come out and cart away the debris, leaving behind an empty lot where Cook hoped that his and NeNe’s future child might play. He planned to add a covered patio by the pool and maybe a small kennel for family dogs. “We can plant some grass back here and fence this all in,” he said, imagining how it would someday be.
And then there was Culver. Deep down, he sensed he might not make money on any of his properties in the next few years, or even decades. But he had bigger reasons for buying his land and his house on West Lincoln. For much of his life, Culver’s mother struggled to keep a job. He barely knew his father. “I am the stereotype of the Black male who grew up without a dad,” he said.
Now Culver had found a path to success and providing for his family that seemed achievable. Land would be his legacy; it would break the pattern that he had inherited from his parents.
“I don’t want my struggles to roll off on my kids,” he said.