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The downturn hits home in Lakewood

Residents are worried about job security, retirement and making ends meet. They say the future looks bleak.

October 06, 2008|Kimi Yoshino | Times Staff Writer

Candlewood Street in Lakewood is a regular neighborhood filled with regular people -- young and old, Republicans and Democrats, blacks, whites, Latinos and Asians. The lawns of the 1950s-era houses are groomed, and some porches are dressed with U.S. flags. In one yard, children toss a football as a couple walk nearby with a dog.

It's a placid suburban tableau.

But knock on doors, ask a couple of questions, and a flood of anxiety -- and often anger -- spills out.

Layoffs. Jobs in jeopardy. Foreclosures. Unease over bank failures and Wall Street dives.

"We're barely keeping up; we're on the edge," said Angie Zaragoza, 43. "And I think it's going to get worse and worse."

The folks on this street blame inept government and greedy corporate executives for the state of affairs. Even those who know how they'll vote in November say they have little faith that the next president can make things better.

The few who aren't overly anxious about the economy, generally younger workers, are nonetheless making simple lifestyle changes to pinch pennies. But many residents of Candlewood Street are scared that they're just a few paychecks or an unforeseen crisis away from disaster.

Zaragoza, a loan processor at the Nissan dealership down the street, has watched weekend car sales slip from 90 to 25. People are walking through the doors to give cars back, not drive new ones home. Some salespeople and support staff have been laid off, and her bosses have warned that more downsizing is imminent.

Today, she has a job. But next week? Next month? She can't say.

Zaragoza knows she's far from alone. The guy next door?

"He only lasted here one year," Zaragoza said. He was there, then he was gone. The house went up for sale.

She looked up his address online. The listing said "short sale." He got in over his head.

Stuff like that just makes 86-year-old Frank Gutierrez angry.

"I'm not in trouble," said Gutierrez, who bought his house in 1962 for about $13,000, lives off savings and Social Security and is now "just waiting to die."

"Thirteen thousand was nothing," he said. "That's why I'm angry at the system for taking advantage of the middle class, the backbone of the country. I worry about the people working day in and day out. . . . If they bail out Freddie Mac, why not bail out the middle class who lost their $50,000 down payments? You and I deserve more."

Anyone should have seen a financial meltdown coming, Gutierrez said: "A man making $50,000 a year buying a $500,000 house? How the hell is he going to pay for it?"

A few houses away, Barbara Booth isn't worried so much about job security as her retirement and making ends meet.

"I can tell you I'm worried," said Booth, 57, a purchasing agent for Long Beach Unified School District who's trying to support not only herself but also her son, his wife and their three kids. "When you see the whole world falling apart, it's very unnerving."

Her husband of nine years moved out last week, taking with him his $50,000-a-year salary, roughly half the couple's annual income. The next day, her dog died. Her son's family lives with her because his job, which pays just over minimum wage, isn't enough to make ends meet.

"My whole life right now," she joked, "could be a sad country-western song."

Financial stresses contributed to the demise of her marriage, Booth said. The threat of her husband losing his job, the pressures of family moving in -- even though it helped cover the bills -- were all too much.

Booth inherited her house from her parents, but she took out a loan to fix it up, put on a new roof and add a room. Every month, she pays about $2,000 on that loan, in addition to credit card bills and payments toward a $42,000 balance on the Minnie Winnie Winnebago the family bought in 2003. It's parked in the driveway now, with only 13,000 miles on it. A "For sale" sign is taped to the window.

When she thought her husband might lose his job earlier this year, Booth found an evening retail job to bring in some extra money. Now she buys in bulk, uses gasoline conservatively and clips coupons. Even the necessities are a struggle, she said, and they rarely eat out.

"We used to love Pizza Hut," Booth said. "Now it's Little Caesars for $5."

Her 31-year-old son, William Hendron, can't help much more than he already does by covering utilities and chipping in where he can. At $10.50 an hour, his job delivering espresso beans brings in only $1,400 a month. High gas prices have kept his boss from doling out raises -- he hasn't had one in two years.

He can see the effects of the bad economy trickling down to him. Mom-and-pop shops to which he used to make deliveries have gone out of business. Other stores are switching to less expensive beans.

None of this makes Hendron feel great about the future. Instead, he's trying to keep his kids from repeating his mistake: unexpectedly starting a family at 15 and never finishing high school.

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