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California households are doing without

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The Delgado family is putting off plumbing repairs to their San Marcos home. Estela Saucevo’s teeth hurt, but she’s trying to avoid a costly trip to the dentist. Teachers William and Kathy Jones, struggling with pay cuts, are getting by without the little extras they used to enjoy.

“No date nights, no vacation — no nothing, unfortunately,” said William Jones, 59, an automotive instructor in Riverside County.

The recession may be technically over, but many Californians say their personal fortunes have yet to recover or have taken a turn for the worse. A new poll shows they are coping with hard times by cutting household expenses, skipping restaurant meals and forgoing home improvements.

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“I am scared, to be honest,” said Celia Delgado, 36, one of the people surveyed for The Times and USC’s Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences. “I am scared that my husband might lose his job and I might lose my job, and we might be homeless.”

The poll found that 37% of Californians were cutting back on household expenses such as groceries and gasoline, while 52% were forgoing luxuries such as concerts and restaurant meals, in order to make their mortgage payments.

And with home prices weak, the poll found that 31% of the more than 1,500 California voters surveyed had put off looking for or buying a new home — and that 50% had set aside investing in home improvements.

Both of those trends are sobering reminders of how hard it will be for California to escape the grip of the devastating economic downturn. Housing has traditionally fueled recoveries, but tepid demand for homes — and even home improvements — is crimping the creation of new jobs in construction and real estate.

On Friday, California reported that construction payrolls decreased by 1,100 jobs in June, following a drop of 5,000 in May. Compared with June 2010, construction sector employment has hardly budged: It’s up only 7,800 jobs, or 1.4%.

“The concern is that many of these jobs in California are not coming back anytime in the near future,” said Stuart Gabriel, director of UCLA’s Ziman Center for Real Estate. “Without those related jobs through residential real estate, we are finding it very difficult for the California economy to recover.”

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To save money, Celia and David Delgado are taking their five children to visit family in Mexicali, Mexico — and putting off that trip to Disneyland they wanted to take. And forget about paying fees for youth soccer leagues; pickup games with other kids in the neighborhood will have to do.

Jones, another person who participated in the poll, said he and his wife, Kathy, 56, a public school teacher, endured sizable pay cuts over the last year and were fighting to make ends meet.

Their home in San Jacinto, near Hemet, is assessed at less than half the $392,000 that couple paid in 2006. And Jones said they still owe a little more than double the property’s current value, putting them, like many Californians who bought in inland areas during the height of the boom, deeply “underwater.”

Although the Joneses have not missed a single mortgage payment, they buy fewer groceries, run the air conditioner less and have skipped some utilities payments. The couple rely on a home garden for vegetables and often cook meals they can stretch for two to three days to spend less on food.

“We are looking over the edge,” Jones said, “and we are just hoping something don’t come from behind and push us over.”

They’re set on keeping their four-bedroom, three-bathroom house on a suburban street ravaged by foreclosures and steep price declines, he said, because they do not want to wreck their credit history and because Jones’ elderly parents live with them, and he needs to keep a roof over their heads.

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Richard Green, director of the USC Lusk Center for Real Estate, said California homeowners are likely to make big sacrifices to hold on to their houses for a variety of reasons, even when they owe far more on their mortgages than the value of their properties. They may not want to realize the loss, and they could be concerned about their credit histories, he said.

“People who put down payments on homes — they tend to not walk away because they just don’t want to swallow the loss,” Green said. “There are also people who feel responsible for paying their bills.”

The poll was based on a survey of 1,507 registered voters in California from July 6 through 17. It was conducted by Greenberg Quinlan Rosner, a Democratic firm, and American Viewpoint, a Republican firm. The margin of sampling error is plus or minus 2.52 percentage points.

Overall, 73% of respondents said the economy wasn’t improving, compared with 67% in an April poll.

In the latest survey, 16% said they had lost a job in the last year, and 25% had seen a reduction in wages or work hours. A total of 17% of respondents said they or someone in the household had been forced to downsize their living arrangements or relocate.

The state’s Latinos appear to have been hit hardest by the economy’s problems, according to the poll, which showed Latinos were disproportionally affected by job losses and reduced wages.

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“You have 37% overall, and half of Latinos, who are cutting back on groceries and gas to pay for a mortgage,” said pollster Stan Greenberg, who co-directed the survey. “You have these people who are really on the edge and making these tough choices today.”

Many of the state’s minority groups are suffering more severely from the housing downturn’s fallout than are white families. Thirty-three percent of whites said they or household members were cutting back on non-luxury items to cover their mortgages, compared with 48% of blacks, 49% of Latinos and 49% of Asians.

Forty-nine percent of whites polled said they or household members had cut luxury items to cover mortgage payments, compared with 65% of blacks, 62% of Latinos and 54% of Asians.

Parents were having a tougher time with the housing crisis than respondents with no children. Fifty percent of parents polled had cut back on essentials to pay their mortgages, compared with 32% who had no children living at home.

Forty-three percent of respondents younger than 50 said they or household members had cut back on essentials to pay the mortgage, compared with 30% who were 50 or older. When it came to non-essentials, that comparison stood at 59% to 45%.

“The decline in the housing market is having an immediate impact on Californians’ lives, especially on parents, minorities and younger people,” said Linda DiVall of American Viewpoint.

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Hesperia resident Estela Saucevo, 58, and her husband, Pirso Roman, 68, fell behind on their mortgage payments after Saucevo hurt her leg — an injury that required two surgeries and forced her to leave her housecleaning day job and weekend gig selling handmade tamales at the Victorville Food 4 Less, she said.

The couple’s loan was modified with lower payments at the start of the year, Saucevo said, and she has found a new job taking care of two young children, but still many essentials are being put off. The home has dropped 60% in value from the $305,000 they paid in 2007: Assessed value records show it is now worth $121,500. Saucevo said the home is probably worth even less.

When she couldn’t work, she said, the couple subsisted on little more than rice, beans and tortillas. They seldom drove anywhere. They eliminated Internet service. They borrowed money from family to make their mortgage payments.

Despite the new job, Saucevo said she hasn’t gone to the dentist even though her teeth hurt her when she eats. She has put off buying new glasses.

“We are still in a difficult situation, but we are better than a few months ago,” she said. “We are surviving, that is the good thing, that we are OK, but we had to make many cuts.”

alejandro.lazo@latimes.com

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