Saturday, May 1, 2010

From bucolic bliss to 'gated ghetto'


From bucolic bliss to 'gated ghetto'

Hemet's Willowalk tract was family-friendly. Then the recession hit.

March 30, 2010|By Alana Semuels
Reporting from Hemet — The gated community in Hemet doesn't seem like the best place for Eddie and Maria Lopez to raise their family anymore.
Vandals knocked out the streetlight in front of the Lopezes' five-bedroom home and then took advantage of the darkness to try to steal a van. Cars are parked four deep in the driveway next door, where a handful of men rent rooms. And up and down their block of handsome single-family homes are padlocked doors, orange "no trespassing signs" and broken front windows.

It wasn't what the Lopezes pictured when they agreed to pay $440,000 for their 5,000-square-foot house in 2006.
The 427-home Willowalk tract, built by developer D.R. Horton, featured eight distinct "villages" within its block walls. Along with spacious homes, Willowalk boasted four lakes, a community pool and clubhouse. Fanciful street names such as Pink Savory Way and Bee Balm Road added to the bucolic image.
Young families seemed to occupy every house, throwing block parties and holiday get-togethers, and distributing a newsletter about the neighborhood, Eddie Lopez recalled.
"We loved how everything was family-oriented -- all our kids would run around together," said Lopez, a 41-year-old construction supervisor and father of seven. "Now everybody's gone."
Home foreclosures have devastated neighborhoods throughout the country, but the transformation from suburban paradise to blighted community has been especially stark in places like Willowalk -- isolated developments on the far fringes of metropolitan areas that found ready buyers when home prices were soaring but then saw an exodus as values crashed.
Vacant homes are sprinkled throughout Willowalk, betrayed by foot-high grass. Others are rented, including some to families that use government Section 8 vouchers to live in homes with granite countertops and vaulted ceilings.
When the development opened in 2006, buyers were drawn to the area by advertising describing it as a "gated lakeshore community." Now, many in Hemet call Willowalk the "gated ghetto," said John Occhi, a local real estate agent.
There are dozens of places like Willowalk, and they are turning into America's newest slums, says Christopher Leinberger, a visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution. With home values at a fraction of their peak, he said, it no longer makes sense to live so far from the commercial centers where jobs are concentrated.
"We built too much of the wrong product in the wrong locations," Leinberger said.

Thanks to overbuilding, demographic changes and shifts in preferences, by 2030 there could be 25 million more suburban homes on large lots than are needed, said Arthur C. Nelson of the University of Utah. Nelson believes that as baby boomers age and as younger generations buy real estate, the population will abandon remote McMansions for smaller homes closer to shops, jobs and the other necessities of life.

Whatever their number, the presence of unwanted or abandoned homes stands to be a burden on local governments for years to come, as cash-strapped cities and counties have to spend precious resources to patrol the neighborhoods and clean unkempt yards and abandoned houses.
"There are cities saying to us, 'I used to have eight code enforcement officers, and now I have one,' " said Bill Higgins, a staff attorney for the League of California Cities.
About 80 California municipalities are striking back, enforcing ordinances that fine lenders up to $1,000 a day for not maintaining properties that have been foreclosed, Higgins said. But most cities don't have the resources to force absentee owners or renters to keep up their properties.
In Hemet, city officials have simply boarded up homes in some troubled neighborhoods. Plywood covers the windows of dozens of apartments on Valley View Drive; resident David Hall says it keeps prostitutes and drug dealers out.
Willowalk presents a different challenge. The development promised a Tiffany neighborhood for what was then something closer to a Target price.
"Leave the world behind as you unwind by our picturesque lakes," cooed one advertisement, which touted "intimate botanical gardens and walking trails, tranquil lakes" and other attractions.
At first, the reality matched the come-ons.
Maria Lopez, a stay-at-home mother, recalls gazing at the mountains in the distance as her children played with groups of neighbors their own age. The community pool was just a few blocks away, and she says she used to let her older children, ages 13 and 14, go there by themselves.
Now she accompanies her children to the pool -- though it has been closed of late -- because the people who now hang out there "have no class," she said, and she sits out front with her children if they play in the yard.
"My next-door neighbors -- there are so many people living there, I don't know who they are," she said.
Walking through the development, there is not much evidence of the well-kept yards and friendly families Maria Lopez fondly recalls.

Many of the people answering a knock say they are renters, and won't open their doors more than a crack to see who is on their doorstep. Red-and-white "for sale" signs dot the neighborhood, clashing with the golds and browns of the homes. The contrast between occupied and empty houses is evident on one block, where high grass in weedy clumps gives way to a neatly mowed lawn with handwritten signs pleading "Please do not let your dog poop on our yard."

Homeowner Norma Hernandez, one of the few people outside on a recent sunny afternoon, can point out which families are permanent on her block.
"Rented, owned, rented, rented, rented," she said, gesturing at the gargantuan houses across the street, one after another. "It's bad," she said, shaking her head.
Nacho Gomez is paid by absentee owners to look after their rental properties. Currently, he's taking care of 17.
Doing a check of the homes on a recent Thursday, he left his van's engine running as he inspected a shattered window in one property.
"A lot of them can't pay the rent, and they leave the house a mess," Gomez said, referring to tenants.
He has had to fix holes punched in walls and replace refrigerators, dishwashers and other appliances -- even ovens -- stolen by renters on their way out.
Those tenants appear to be the exception, and the renters provide at least one benefit: Without them, there would be even more vacant homes. Even so, their presence has fundamentally changed the character of what was once sold as an exclusive community.
The Willowalk Homeowners Assn. is trying to recapture some of the community's lost spirit. In recent months, it launched a trash committee -- members pick up rubbish in the park -- and started a neighborhood watch group to keep an eye on residents' homes.
But it wasn't enough for Angelica Stewart and her family, who are leaving the $318,000 home they bought in 2006. To Stewart, living in a gated community is absurd when drug busts are a regular occurrence.
"It's not worth it for us to live in this neighborhood," she said.
The Lopez family plans to stick it out, knowing they can't sell their house for anywhere near the $440,000 they paid for it. Based on comparable prices in the neighborhood, the place is probably worth about $170,000 now, and maybe less. They're petitioning their bank for a loan modification.
Despite the financial loss and the fact that Eddie Lopez's hours at work were cut because of the construction slowdown, the family holds out for a brighter future.
They're hoping that Willowalk will someday become the idyllic neighborhood they once knew, nearly as perfect as advertisements had promised.
"When we moved in, everybody was homeowners, now everybody's renting them out," Eddie Lopez said. "But I have to stay. There's nothing I can do."


Loquisimo said...

This is the BIG PROBLEM I have with most housing in the USA. Most of it is in these awful "planned communities", places built for quick profit in another era and sold on lies. I GUARANTEE you that the builder of these homes, a HUGE real estate corporation called DR Horton, has already gotten its money out of Willowalk and moved on. It's a ghetto now? Not Horton's problem.

The way these communities are built, each abandoned home quickly becomes everybody's problem, and ultimately drags the whole area down. It's hard to understand unless you've actually lived in suburban USA for a while. Each abandoned home begets more abandoned homes, as owners move out and nobody picks up the slack.

OR, the homes are sold to mystery landlords who farm out the management to crooked local companies who will rent to anybody, no questions asked. That's how you get neighborhoods full of drug dealers and illegal immigrants. The landlord doesn't care, he lives in New York in a penthouse, why should he? The builder is long gone. The manager is crooked. These far flung "exurbs" are worthless, and are destined to become ghettos. The era of suburbanization is over, folks.

Anonymous said...

Tehse communities are far away from anything valuable, in a petrol-junk, cash abundant economy.

When SHTF, there is no justification for such far away, lower quality houses.

This kind of housing is the consequence of every real estate buble

Pete said...

Another manifest of the housing bubble, each bubble busting leaves the country in worse shape; but, our Gov't quickly rushes in to drop interest rates to next to nothing, loans 'trillions' to large banks (Citi, JP Morgan,etc)mortgage financial institutions like AIG, Freddie and Fannie, trying to reinflate the bubble again!! I thought Obama was going to put an end to that? Will the American people ever learn or are we destined to follow Argentina?

russell1200 said...

If you use MSN’s Bling search engine (www.bing.com) and go to the map location for: Willowglen Way, Hemet, CA‎.

And then use the Birds Eye view feature (it is under the Ariel tap) , you will see how tightly packed the community is. Particularly given that it is in the middle of nowhere. It is a style that seems to be popular for getting the maximum house, with the least amount of upkeep. They are good for certain lifestyles, but also an investors dream.

This Realtor was writing about them somewhat early on in the downturn:

What they sound like is a trailer park where the size and sprawl make policing even more difficult. Trailer parks can be nice places to live affordably, but if the owner/management isn’t tough on rules enforcement they can go to pieces in a very bad way.

Google puts them at almost exactly a 1-1/2 hour drive from “Los Angeles”. That is an awfully long commute. Presumably the intent was for commutes to the Los Angeles Satellite cities (San Bernardino, etc.)

Loquisimo said...

Russell, the "intent" was to make a pile of cash and then walk away as quickly as possible. What happens later is seemingly nobody's concern. Ever since the railroads turned the Los Angeles Basin from farmland into sprawl 120 years ago, the main impulse behind development of the area has been MONEY, and making tons of it. A livable, sustainable community is never on the board with these jerks. Buy land, subdivide it, build cheap housing, sell it, fill up an area only to move to the next area and repeat. By 2005 the process had reached the Mojave Desert, and the Victor Valley and other high desert valleys were filled with uninhabitable housing projects meant to make money.

In the 50s the goal was to make every man his own lord of the manor, to destroy American Communism by making the average man a landowner, so the emphasis was land. Small house, large lot. Some of the early developments had 1/5 of an acre lots. Or, looked at another way, 5 houses per acre. These newest places have 20 or more houses per acre.

The focus shifted from "my own manor" to "showcase house", where the house was front and center as a testament to the lives that abundant credit made possible. I toured some of these houses in 2008, just as the collapse was starting to roll, and many of the ones where the owners hadn't moved out were just mind boggling. All leather furniture, $9,000 showers, satellite HDTV in the bathroom. A popular gimmick was to buy expensive pots and pans and hang them above a center island in the kitchen, so cooking pots doubled as art.

Another popular theme was the "TV armoire", a cabinet that held your ridiculously oversized TV, with doors that closed to hide it. The idea was similar to the TVs of the 1950s that had closing doors so it looked more like a console radio. In a local thrift store recently, I saw an authentic Art Deco wardrobe armoire that had had the back cut out for a TV, so the TV armoire looked "antique". The armoire had a HUGE HOLE in the back for a TV! I wanted to cry-it was RUINED! That sort of overweening arrogance was common in the 2000s, and most of those people have gotten a BIG reality check.

But yeah, these "showcase" homes were built specifically for easy riches and showing off. No credit makes them worthless.

Bill in NC said...

If Detroit's any guide most of these houses will burn.

Often at the hands of homeowners who are sick of squatters, junkies, etc. living next door.

The goal is to render the house uninhabitable by any of the above scum.