From bucolic bliss to 'gated ghetto'

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.

Many of the people answering a knock say they are renters, and won't open their doors more than a crack to see who is on their doorstep. Red-and-white "for sale" signs dot the neighborhood, clashing with the golds and browns of the homes. The contrast between occupied and empty houses is evident on one block, where high grass in weedy clumps gives way to a neatly mowed lawn with handwritten signs pleading "Please do not let your dog poop on our yard."

Homeowner Norma Hernandez, one of the few people outside on a recent sunny afternoon, can point out which families are permanent on her block.

"Rented, owned, rented, rented, rented," she said, gesturing at the gargantuan houses across the street, one after another. "It's bad," she said, shaking her head.

Nacho Gomez is paid by absentee owners to look after their rental properties. Currently, he's taking care of 17.

Doing a check of the homes on a recent Thursday, he left his van's engine running as he inspected a shattered window in one property.

"A lot of them can't pay the rent, and they leave the house a mess," Gomez said, referring to tenants.

He has had to fix holes punched in walls and replace refrigerators, dishwashers and other appliances -- even ovens -- stolen by renters on their way out.

Those tenants appear to be the exception, and the renters provide at least one benefit: Without them, there would be even more vacant homes. Even so, their presence has fundamentally changed the character of what was once sold as an exclusive community.

The Willowalk Homeowners Assn. is trying to recapture some of the community's lost spirit. In recent months, it launched a trash committee -- members pick up rubbish in the park -- and started a neighborhood watch group to keep an eye on residents' homes.

But it wasn't enough for Angelica Stewart and her family, who are leaving the $318,000 home they bought in 2006. To Stewart, living in a gated community is absurd when drug busts are a regular occurrence.

"It's not worth it for us to live in this neighborhood," she said.

The Lopez family plans to stick it out, knowing they can't sell their house for anywhere near the $440,000 they paid for it. Based on comparable prices in the neighborhood, the place is probably worth about $170,000 now, and maybe less. They're petitioning their bank for a loan modification.

Despite the financial loss and the fact that Eddie Lopez's hours at work were cut because of the construction slowdown, the family holds out for a brighter future.

They're hoping that Willowalk will someday become the idyllic neighborhood they once knew, nearly as perfect as advertisements had promised.

"When we moved in, everybody was homeowners, now everybody's renting them out," Eddie Lopez said. "But I have to stay. There's nothing I can do."

alana.semuels@

latimes.com

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