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Why They Are Drawn to Danger

Times Staff Writers

Cherie Chako has a broken collarbone, a concussion and the memory of being trapped for more than an hour under the mud and debris that killed 10 people this week in the seaside community of La Conchita.

But to be perfectly honest, she said Thursday from her hospital bed in Ventura, “if they fixed everything up, I’d be back tomorrow. I know it sounds nutty, but it’s a very special place.”

Real estate has driven much of California history. La Conchita is no different.

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Bargain housing made it possible for residents -- a mix of bohemians, surfers, artists, musicians and retirees -- to live the iconic beach lifestyle of the 1950s and ‘60s that is now usually out of reach for all but the most well-off Californians.

Ocean views here don’t require an inheritance or high-paying 80-hour workweeks. As one homeowner said, people in La Conchita understand there is more to life than work.

“Where else in Southern California can you get a home in the 500s right next to the beach?” asked Ventura broker Fred Evans. “Nowhere.”

After a 1995 landslide destroyed nine homes in La Conchita, houses weren’t just affordable, they were dirt-cheap: a one-bedroom sold for $35,000 in 1997.

When memories of that disaster faded and the real estate market rebounded, La Conchita was still a deal. Camarillo agent John Heard has sold eight houses there in the last five years, the first for $175,000 and the last a few months ago for nearly $600,000.

There have been 72 real estate sales in La Conchita since the March 1995 landslide, Ventura County officials said. The town, which had 190 dwellings before Monday’s slide, was subdivided in 1924 on land flattened by the Southern Pacific railroad as a catch basin to keep rocks and mud off its tracks.

Sales in La Conchita, particularly in recent years, were for a fraction of the prices in other Southern California beach communities. In Ventura, 15 miles south, a fixer-upper in an iffy neighborhood away from the beach will cost $600,000, and in Santa Barbara, even a modest home costs $1 million. Malibu? Astronomical.

Building restrictions put in place for safety after La Conchita’s 1995 landslide prevented the community’s modest homes from being replaced with coastal mansions. That left intact a unique beach community that included people of modest means and attracted newcomers willing to pay more and more.

“They like the beach and the rural-ness of La Conchita,” said Heard. “It’s not hurried like Ventura or Santa Barbara. They liked being away from it all, but fairly close to civilization.”

Banks and mortgage companies also gained confidence in the La Conchita market in the years after the 1995 slide.

“I always heard people talk about three or four different lending zones in La Conchita,” depending on how close a house was to the hillside, Heard said. “But I have never been turned down for a loan there.”

At least one mortgage broker said Thursday, however, that he was surprised so many lenders were willing to take the risk, especially given that insurance companies did not cover landslide damage. “I would say that is an unfortunate oversight by the lenders, absolutely,” said longtime Los Angeles County mortgage company owner Jack Skeene.

It was possible lenders grew more comfortable as home sale prices increased, he said. The farther a house from the hillside, Skeene said the lender might figure, ‘Well, this house doesn’t have the same exposure.’ ”

As Southern California’s real estate market surged, a few investors found La Conchita, quickly reselling houses.

“The market was moving very, very rapidly just because of the lack of supply,” said real estate agent Harold Powell, “and because buyers were afraid if they didn’t buy soon, they might not be able to buy at all.”

Last summer, Powell sold a 1,200-square-foot house for $480,000, then sold it again three months later for $560,000.

In almost every sale, the fragile, looming hillside above La Conchita was a worry, but not a big enough one to kill the deal. Even now, agents say they are confident that properties will sell again.

“There’s always a price-point where concern finally gives way to a really good deal,” said Evans, whose office has sold many La Conchita homes in the last decade.

Ross “Skip” Cullins, 31, was one of the first to buy after the 1995 landslide. After renting in town for a year, he bought his house in 1997, paying the owner $15,000 cash and assuming a $115,000 mortgage.

Cullins saw the purchase of his California beach bungalow less as an investment than as a great place to raise his two children. Before refinancing last year, the landscape contractor had monthly payments of about $1,100. Cullins said the low payments made it easier for him to take the time to volunteer at his son and daughter’s school and to coach their sports teams.

Two weeks ago, Cullins said, he was thrilled when his house was appraised at $500,000. It now stands just feet from the edge of the landslide. “It’s worth nothing,” he said. Still, it would be hard to walk away, Cullins said, and he plans to live there when the hillside is dry.

Cullins and others say La Conchita is more than just affordable housing.

“There is definitely a core of people here who enjoyed their time,” he said. “They understood there is more to life than just work.”

Chako, 58, was comforted by a teenage neighbor while she and her partner were waiting to be rescued from the ruins of their home. For her, La Conchita began as “something of a curiosity,” a spot she often passed driving U.S. Highway 101 while a student at UC Santa Barbara.

When she and her partner, Nadine Bunn, 57, quit their jobs as Los Angeles County social workers 25 years ago to open a music store in Santa Barbara, they found they could own a home blocks from the surf in La Conchita for about the price of a Santa Barbara rental.

At that time, she said, no one was talking about the danger from the 600-foot-high cliff that formed the eastern border of the narrow hamlet.

When the 1995 landslide hit, Chako said, she and Bunn stayed because they had a long investment in the town, both financially and emotionally.

“It’s a very unusual community right on the water. The beauty was astounding,” said Chako. Her faith in the community -- if not the geology -- has only been strengthened in the days since she was pulled from the mud.

“We have so many wonderful friends that have helped us, running the store, doing everything for us,” she said. “They brought me clothes, even offered us housing and cars. That’s the kind of community I’m talking about.”

Those who stayed after the 1995 slide -- and who plan to return to their homes as soon as authorities restore utility services -- take a steely view.

“You have to have Viking blood to live there,” said Robert Brunner, who’s lived in the area for 34 years. He’s seen “train disasters, highway disasters, huge waves crossing the freeway. That’s just the way it is.”

But with geologists warning this week that future slides are inevitable, some residents are undecided about returning. Some said they will wait to see whether Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger can make good on his promise to make the community safe. Ventura County officials said Thursday that shoring up the hillside could cost more than $150 million and carry no guarantee.

“If the mountain’s fairly safe, I’ll move back,” said Gina Lessing, who is in her 40s. In the six months she and her husband have lived there, she said, she made more friends in La Conchita than in years spent elsewhere.

Still, if the hillside isn’t stabilized to her satisfaction, she said, “I’m out of there.”

If she does go, those working in the Southern California real estate market said, there will be others to take her place.

“People will forget, just like they did last time,” said Keene, the mortgage company owner, who himself built a home on a Malibu hillside.

“Years go by, and all of a sudden the severity of the problem is less important,” he said. “In the end, they decide it’s worth the risk because of the beauty of this place.”

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Times staff writers Amanda Covarubbias and Jia-Rui Chong contributed to this report.


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