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Dozens Line Up for a Dream

Times Staff Writer

Simi Valley resident Sandy Funcich was holding a place in line Tuesday for her daughter and son-in-law when she was offered $5,000 for her spot.

No, this wasn’t for a Bruce Springsteen concert.

Funcich’s daughter is among dozens of people, including seniors and one pregnant woman, who have been camping out on a street corner here this week hoping for the chance to buy a new townhome. On Saturday, the first phase of the 100-unit complex goes up for sale on a first-come, first-served basis, with homes starting in the mid-$300,000s.

In a skyrocketing market where the price of a new home is beyond the reach of the average worker, the potential homeowners said sleeping on the street could be their only shot at a piece of the American Dream. At least in Southern California.

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“It’s desperation,” said Funcich, who played solitaire at a folding table Tuesday morning while holding the third spot in line for her 22-year-old daughter, Danielle, and 27-year-old son-in-law, Roberto. “The reason there’s a line is because it’s new.”

Indeed, many of the campers -- all seemingly experts on the local housing market -- said a fixer-upper in Simi Valley could not be touched for less than $350,000, not to mention the thousands more it would cost to get it into move-in condition.

On the other hand, Beazer Homes USA, based in Atlanta, is building three- and four-bedroom condominiums on Sycamore Drive with attached two-car garages, laundry rooms and patios that range from 1,400 to 1,800 square feet. The one- and two-story condos are in various stages of construction just north of the 118 Freeway.

Many of those in line said they were worried the builder might raise the price on the 20 homes expected to go on sale Saturday. The condos were originally advertised in the high $200,000s, but the latest word from Beazer was the price would be in the mid-$300,000s, campers said.

A spokeswoman for Beazer could not be reached for comment. “It says people are desperate for something that is reasonably priced,” City Councilman Glen Becerra said.

“You have to ask is $350,000 even a reasonable price for a condominium? It’s very important for everyone to understand that these are teachers and police officers and people who work in our grocery stores who are trying to find a piece of the American dream. We’ve got to work to find a balance between the need to find housing for good, hard-working people and at the same time protecting the quality of life that people here enjoy.”

Mark Schniepp, director of the California Economic Forecast in Santa Barbara, said the line reflected the shortage of housing for middle-income buyers in California.

“It doesn’t surprise me at all,” Schniepp said. “I think $350,000 is quite affordable for middle-income people. With interest rates the way they are, it gives you a mortgage that is less than you can rent, and you have all the benefits of owning your own home.”

As the din of saws and pounding hammers pierced the air, Linda Siemen held the second spot in line for her 23-year-old son, Jason, a U.S. Marine who returned from Iraq about a month ago. She waits by day at the site until Jason returns from Camp Pendleton, where he has to check in every morning with his supervisor. Jason, who has his eye on the least expensive model, sleeps in the tent at night with his 26-year-old brother, Corey.

“He said, ‘I want to be first in line,’ so he came out here Saturday, and by Sunday night there were about 20 people here,” said Siemen, a Simi Valley real estate broker. She said Jason had traded places with Sandy Scott, 35, a real estate agent.

“I’ve been wanting to buy a place for several years, and I’m in a position where I can,” Scott said. “There’s a shortage of townhomes in the area, there hasn’t been a new one built in the community in five years.”

Development of attached units has become rare in Southern California. Analysts cite several factors that have led to the decline in construction of condos and townhomes, most notably construction-defect lawsuits that have made builders wary of such projects. Builders say the cost of settling lawsuits makes condo development too risky, and insurers have all but stopped writing coverage for condo construction.

Condo developments often face opposition from nearby homeowners, who fear their presence will lower property values while adding unwelcome density and street traffic. Analysts say consumer preference for single-family homes and lenders’ reluctance to finance such projects after the market was saturated in the 1990s also contributed to the decline.

But the tent city that has sprung up in Simi Valley seems to indicate a shift. So crushing is the demand that Funcich was offered $5,000 Tuesday to give up her spot. She turned it down.

Chris Urquhart, a paramedic, who was reading a paperback in his tent Tuesday morning, said he and his wife have been looking for a home to buy on and off for several years. Meantime, they and their two sons are living with his in-laws in Thousand Oaks.

“There’s not enough opportunity for first-time home buyers,” Urquhart said, shaking his head.

Mike Lanska, another parent who wants his adult child to enjoy the benefits of homeownership, was waiting in line while his 22-year-old son, Jason, worked.

A deputy with the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, Jason views the Sycamore Shade development as a chance to own a home in the city where he grew up, his father said.

“We didn’t have to stand in line when we bought our first house in Simi Valley,” Mike Lanska said. “Twenty-six years later, it’s unbelievable. You can’t find a house in Simi Valley for under $350,000. You can’t save enough money because equity is going up so fast. You just have to take that leap and hope you get in.”

Campers said they were trying to make the best of their weeklong wait, hoping for a big payoff at the end. “How often to do you get to meet your neighbors and have a barbecue with them before you move in?” Funcich said.


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