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In Murrieta, a fading American dream

April 13, 2009|David Kelly

At this point in life, Linda Juarez expected to have five years of equity in her house, a secure future for her family and a viable stake in the American dream.

But that's not how the story has played out. Her home's value has withered, her husband was laid off and rehired for less pay and grand dreams have given way to more modest expectations.

Recently, those amounted to securing a frozen chicken for dinner so her children would be spared another night of canned green beans and ramen noodles.

"It's the last thing you expect," she said. "You work hard, you are raised in a good family and then this."

Juarez, 38, was waiting in a long line of cars that began forming before dawn recently outside a Murrieta food pantry. Housewives, real estate agents, soldiers and businessmen sat with the windows up and eyes fixed straight ahead.

For many, pride has taken a back seat to survival.

"I used to spend $160 every two weeks for food. Now it's $50 every two weeks," said Glenn Garrett, 36, a laid-off construction foreman with three children. "But I'm still a dad, and it's still my responsibility to put food on the table."

Here in southwest Riverside County, where foreclosures and unemployment have taken an enormous toll, one of the biggest casualties has been the middle class, which is rapidly becoming the new poor.

"This is more of a middle-class recession than any before because of the housing component and because the shutdown of the financial system has spread into the service and construction sector where you have a lot of the better jobs," said John Husing of Economics & Politics Inc., a regional economic research firm. "Recessions usually fall on those at the bottom, but now all tiers of society are being hurt."

Few places illustrate that better than Murrieta, a tidy city of about 100,000 with a median family income of $85,439, according to the 2007 census. The community is known for good schools, low crime and conservative politics. Many residents are professionals who work in San Diego.

During the housing boom, people flocked here for big homes at rates the banks made affordable -- temporarily.

When the crash came, it hit hard. According to RealtyTrac, an Irvine-based company that monitors foreclosures, Murrieta had 6,928 foreclosure filings over the last year. Unemployment has risen to 8.3%, while Riverside County's as a whole stands at 12.6%, state labor statistics show.

The Community Food Pantry of Murrieta went from helping 100 families a week last year to 400 a week now.

"When construction started going down, we began seeing all the construction workers coming," said Sonia Strong, the pantry's director of family outreach. "Then we started seeing real estate agents. Then it was the military coming back from Iraq."

She estimates that 30% of those needing help are in foreclosure.

"All it takes is one sick child and we will be on the other side of that line," she said, thumbing through files of new applicants seeking aid. "I have watched grown men sit here and cry because they can't provide for their families."

The need is so great, she said, that the pantry will soon be processing food stamp applications as part of a national pilot program.

City officials are looking into building a shelter, a big step in a place that traditionally had few homeless.

"It has been prompted by the number of people going to the food pantry and looking for temporary shelter," said Mayor Gary Thomasian. "We have to do something other than just hand out food."

Many people are still hanging on, struggling to make mortgage payments as salaries are cut and furloughs mandated.

Barely a mile from the pantry, Christopher Adigwu sat inside his spacious six-bedroom house one morning, crunching numbers and trying desperately to find a way to reduce his mortgage.

"I feel like crying," he said over and over. "I can't sleep at night."

Adigwu moved here from San Diego in 2003, attracted to a high-end golf community that featured "executive" homes on streets with names such as Masters, Back Nine and Serenity. The garages even came with little slots to park golf carts.

"Hundreds of people lined up for these homes. There were lines around the corner," he said. "Can you believe that? I lined up as well, with my chair."

Adigwu paid $550,000 for his house, emptying his savings for the $100,000 down payment. Now it's worth about $300,000.

Hopping into his SUV, Adigwu cruised his neatly kept street.

"This is foreclosed, this is foreclosed and now being rented, that is foreclosed," he said, pointing out house after house. "That one was foreclosed and bought at auction. That one on the corner has been on the market for two years now."

Adigwu, a Nigerian immigrant, has been forced to take unpaid furloughs from his job with the state Department of Social Services, making it harder to cover the $2,800 monthly mortgage payment. His wife, a nurse, works 12-hour shifts, five days a week, to pick up the slack. They have two children, one in college.

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