Advertisement
YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

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.

Advertisement
Los Angeles Times Articles
|
|
|