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HIGH DESERT HOPES

Undone by their dreams

Drawn by the promise of affordable housing, thousands put down roots in arid Hesperia. But long-term security proved an illusion.

June 27, 2010|By Thomas Curwen, Los Angeles Times

First of two parts

Dirt is cheap in the Victor Valley, and amid tumbleweeds and rabbit brush, Joshua trees and juniper bushes, home developments rise up like islands where the desert has been rolled back.

About 300,000 people call this region home. Baked in the summer, frozen in winter, it is scoured by winds that sweep down the mountains — and yet they come, drawn by what they can't find elsewhere in Southern California: the promise of large and affordable houses in clean and safe neighborhoods.

In 2006, Dawn and Michael Meenan found what they were looking for in Hesperia, in a community called Mission Crest. But they had declared bankruptcy four years earlier and were uncertain they could buy a house here. Then the phone rang.

"Your loan has been approved."

They had selected their lot, paid their deposit, and Parcel No. 3046-311-27-0000 was theirs. It wasn't much to speak of — a dip in the curb where their driveway would be and the hard-packed soil beyond — but in a few months it would be their first home: four bedrooms, two baths and a den.

On the summer day the Meenans moved in, their children traced angel wings in the plush carpet. There were no homes behind theirs, just empty lots, and the procession of framing crews, electricians, plumbers and drywallers was constant. In the first few months, they repaired at least 10 flat tires and watched this suburb come together.

On one Halloween their children went trick-or-treating, dressed as a pumpkin, Tinker Bell and Dale Earnhardt Jr., and Dawn and Michael met their neighbors. For birthday parties, they rented an inflatable bouncer and organized carnival games. They staged a luau in winter, Christmas lights still on the eaves.

Then the housing bubble burst, and the recession kicked in.

Construction stopped when a builder filed for bankruptcy in April 2008, leaving nearly 100 graded lots bare and six Craftsman-style houses ready for roofing and stuccoing that never happened. A sign advertising home sites stayed up even after the phone number was reassigned.

Foreclosures started to sweep through the community, creating a patchwork of disrepair. For Sale signs dotted the streets. Vandals targeted empty homes. Boarded-up windows and weed-choked yards detracted from well-maintained houses with tile roofs, recessed entries and stone and brick detailing.

In the last four years, according to the San Bernardino County assessor's office, 373 of the 941 single-family homes in Mission Crest — nearly 40% — have been foreclosed on. Thirty-five have gone through foreclosure more than once. Properties that once sold for nearly $400,000 are worth less than $200,000.

Today homeowners pass along anxious stories about their community — churches set up in garages, houses turned into rentals, gangs moving in, subsidized housing taking over blocks — without knowing what is true and what isn't.

Little did the Meenans know that their dreams would lead to disappointment and their refuge would be so fleeting.

Dreams in the dirt

Most Angelenos know the High Desert as a blur of billboards just beyond the Cajon Pass, 75 miles from downtown Los Angeles, the start of the Mojave, that lengthy inconvenience en route to Las Vegas.

Speculators and retirees put the region on the map in the 1950s, and when Michel Dunia heard President Eisenhower talk to the nation about an interstate highway system, he saw opportunity.

Dunia wasn't unique in his ambition to own land in the desert, but where others dreamed big, he dreamed shrewdly. One day the Lebanese immigrant hired a pilot and a biplane and charted the most likely route for the 10 and the 15 freeways. His explorations took him over the Cajon Pass, where he began to buy parcels of dirt, one of which would become Mission Crest.

At first his investments sat fallow, but Dunia was a patient man. He knew that growth in Southern California would someday reach the region. Escalating home prices helped, and in 1990 Dunia sold 240 acres in Hesperia to Homestead Land Development Co., which mapped 942 home sites. At the time, the desert was booming.

But prosperity washes over the desert in waves, and Homestead soon foundered. The closing of George Air Force Base, 14 miles to the north, cast a 10-year shadow over the region, and the Homestead property changed hands a number of times until Empire Land Co. picked it up in 2004.

Empire Land, based in Ontario, was a meteor among land development companies. Before filing for bankruptcy two years ago, it had broad ambitions for the West. Formed in 2002 by James Previti after the sale of his home-building company for $240 million, Empire soon acquired properties in Arizona and the High Desert.

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