Advertisement
YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollectionsHomeowners

ON CALIFORNIA: Essays from the Golden State

A wild ride on cycles of boom and bust

Moreno Valley hasn't lost hope, and neither has Bob Chiordi, despite losing his house -- again.

September 15, 2008|Peter H. King | Times Staff Writer

MORENO VALLEY — It's an axiom of growth, Southern California-style: Suburbs that arise on the far edges of the metropolis in a boom, more often than not, will recede in a bust. After the down times end, as they always seem to do, the bulldozers and house framers return. And the next cycle begins.

The good people of Moreno Valley know this pattern all too well. Since sprouting out of the desert lands beyond Riverside in the mid-1980s, the city has lurched from outsized boom to neighborhood-gutting recession and back to boom, only to find itself battered yet again by the calamity known as the mortgage crisis.

Bob Chiordi has bobbed through every sea change. A 54-year-old father of two, Chiordi moved here in the '80s, part of a modern-day land rush that for a time would make Moreno Valley the nation's fastest-growing city.

It was a classic suburban trade-off: Chiordi was willing to endure a death-march commute into Long Beach, where he worked as a structural mechanic for McDonnell Douglas, in exchange for an opportunity to own his own house. The American Dream, it's often called -- when it all works out.

Chiordi now toils in the auto service department at Wal-Mart for $10.25 an hour, while scouring the Southland for a job more in line with his background. Moreover, for the second time since moving here, he is about to walk away from his home to foreclosure -- unable to keep up with the payments.

"I don't really like the fact that I lost two houses in my life," he said last week, sitting in the conference room of the Palm Canyon Community Church, where he volunteers as a youth counselor. "But you have to keep going forward."

He told his story in a detached monotone, and at times it seemed he could barely believe what was happening to him. Again.

Chiordi first heard about Moreno Valley from a friend in the mid-'80s. Priced out of the red-hot Los Angeles and Orange County housing markets, he joined the caravans of first-time home buyers rushing east into the so-called Inland Empire.

"This was like the cheap place to move to," Chiordi recalled. "We were able to buy a real nice house for under $100,000. And, if you wanted a really, really nice house, you could get one for $150,000."

In a decade, the population of what would become Moreno Valley -- it incorporated in 1985 -- grew from 30,219 to 118,779, according to the 1990 U.S. Census. Yes, there was a strangeness to this new city on the metropolitan fringe.

"A larval city," a Times columnist called it, after a visit in 1989. " . . . no formal city hall, no courthouses have been built here, no covered malls. . . . Like a warm sea, the subdivisions seem to be waiting for the bones of their community to be built."

But there were churches, tiny churches, tucked into strip malls and abandoned taco stands and tract homes. The precursor to Palm Canyon church, where Chiordi worships, was located in a strip mall just north of Highway 60. The storefront currently houses a discount auto insurance office, with a sign beckoning the auto world's disenfranchised: "Multi-tickets/DUI's/Accidents/Young Drivers/Suspended License. No problem."

The church pastor, Tom De Vries, described back then the strains that long commutes and "frontier nothingness" were placing on Moreno Valley residents. There were problems with latchkey children, with spouses who rarely saw one another during the week.

Chiordi himself did not last long as a rush hour commuter. After two months he switched to swing and night shifts, which allowed him to make the 65-mile drive at less crowded times: "The last day I worked the first shift, a plane landed on the 91 Freeway," he said. "It took me 4 1/2 hours to get home. I said, 'That's it.' "

By the early '90s, he and his family had settled in. He started a cleaning business on the side, and it grew to the point where he could quit McDonnell Douglas and the commute for good. And then, with recession and base closures, California fell into hard times. Moreno Valley, and Bob Chiordi, fell harder.

Real estate values plunged, and houses by the thousands were repossessed, boarded up, abandoned. Gangs grabbed a foothold. March Air Force Base -- aside from housing construction, the city's lone economic stalwart -- was downsized. Moreno Valley's fledgling city government was overwhelmed.

"We had a city council at the time," recalled council member Bonnie Flickinger, "which had very little experience or history on which to base some decisions. And mistakes were made."

The biggest was to bank on the notion that the boom would never end. Fees charged to developers were used to underwrite the city's operating expenses. When construction stalled, so did the city.

Chiordi soon discovered he owed far more on his house than what it was worth, and so, he said, "I just walked away." He moved his family and his steam-cleaning business into a rental, and began the long climb back up. It was at this point he discovered the Palm Canyon church.

Advertisement
Los Angeles Times Articles
|
|
|