In Maricopa, Ariz.,
a Paradise Found and Lost
Builders rushed into this one-time agricultural crossroads during the housing boom. They put up beige stucco houses on winding streets, with names like Heavenly Place and Good Vibrations Lane. They lured young people who couldn't afford homes in nearby Phoenix or its costly suburbs. The population soared to 37,000 last year from 1,400 a decade ago, making Maricopa one of the nation's fastest-growing towns.
Now, it's become a dead end for some of those people.
"We're trapped," says Tracy Campbell, as she watches her 2-year-old daughter romp on a playground.
In 2005, her husband, Zachary Campbell, accepted a transfer from San Diego to Phoenix to manage a recreational-vehicle store. For the first time, the Campbells figured, they could afford their own home, though that meant moving to Maricopa, about 20 miles from Mr. Campbell's store. They scraped together a $50,000 down payment to buy a new four-bedroom home in Maricopa, for $250,000. It came with black granite countertops, cherry kitchen cabinets and a pool in back.
Today, Ms. Campbell figures, the home is worth perhaps half what they paid in 2005.
Even that might be optimistic. Along a nearby highway, young men hired by a local real estate brokerage wave red signs touting "Homes From $69.9 K."
The Campbells planned to sell their house for a profit after a few years and move back to San Diego before their daughter starts kindergarten. Today, they couldn't hope to sell the house for enough to pay off the mortgage. They fear the down payment they made on the house is money they won't see again.
Some people in the neighborhood are simply walking away from their houses, leaving them for the lenders to foreclose. "We're surrounded by empty houses on three sides," Ms. Campbell says. But she and her husband have kept up on their payments, and want to keep their credit record clean.
If misery loves company, the Campbells are in good shape: Zillow.com, a real-estate information provider, estimates that 75% of all homeowners in Maricopa, including those with no mortgage debt, owe more on their mortgages than the current value of their homes. For the nation as a whole, the estimate is 18%.
The town of Maricopa, which isn't part of the nearby county of the same name, is about 30 miles south of downtown Phoenix and is separated from the city by an Indian reservation that remains mostly desert.
But Maricopa's fate is closely tied to that of the Phoenix metro area, where billboards tout foreclosure auctions and bankruptcy lawyers. Largely because of a plunge in construction and related fields, employment in the metro area shrank 4.5% last year, steeper than the national drop of about 2%, says Lee McPheters, an economics professor at Arizona State University. One consolation, he says, is that the steep drop in home prices and low property taxes compared with California and Midwestern states eventually could bring in a new wave of residents to revive the local economy.
As a symbol of Maricopa's former breakneck growth, a temporary building cobbled together from double-wide mobile homes serves as the city hall, across the street from a trailer park left over from the pre-boom days.
Now, Maricopa will do well just to grow its population gradually for a few years. In 2005, consultants hired by the town projected that the population would reach 350,000 by 2020. City officials no longer see that as realistic. The real estate bust "will make for a more sane [pace of] growth," says Mayor Anthony Smith. He points out empty spaces that could be occupied by parks or a community college.
At the peak in 2005, Maricopa collected fees on nearly 800 single-family home-building permits a month, creating a big source of revenue. In January, it awarded just 13. Because fee and tax revenue has plunged, the town is delaying equipment purchases and leaving some job openings unfilled. Revenue for the year ending June 30 is expected to be about $31.6 million, down from $45 million a year before. The mayor says Maricopa can cope with the revenue drop because it budgeted conservatively in recent years and avoided debt.
Though Wal-Mart Stores Inc. is due to open a store here in May, Home Depot has put plans for a store on hold. Business at the Say Sushi Japanese restaurant is "very, very slow," says Dong Lee, a Korean immigrant who runs the restaurant. A Quiznos sandwich shop recently closed, as did a children's clothing boutique.
Driving through town in his silver Toyota pickup, Mayor Smith describes the real estate bust as an opportunity. Maricopa's city council can use the lull to improve planning and zoning laws so the town will be ready for its next growth spurt, he says.
One of the biggest challenges for interrupted boom towns like Maricopa will be to avoid allowing foreclosed homes to turn into eyesores that destroy the appeal of neighborhoods. The town government is holding "neighborhood clean-up days" to pull weeds and pick up litter at vacant homes. The city also is working on a plan for a central business district that would make Maricopa more than a cluster of strip malls.
One of the hardest-hit areas is Maricopa Meadows, a cookie-cutter housing development at the southern end of Maricopa. "We got in on the ground floor," Christian Price says ruefully.
Mr. Price, a financial adviser with an office in Phoenix, and his wife, Cindy, a photographer, liked the small-town feel. They paid about $180,000 for a four-bedroom home in early 2005. By late 2006, Mr. Price figures, the value had rocketed to about $270,000 amid a "frenzy" of speculation. Now, with foreclosure sales dragging down values, he thinks the home would sell for only around $50,000.
Mr. Price, who is president of the Meadows homeowner association, estimates that around one in eight of the 1,600 houses has been foreclosed, and several hundred of them are empty. He says lower-income people who previously couldn't afford new homes now are buying them here for $50,000 to $100,000. It's good that housing has become more affordable, Mr. Price says. Still, he says, "this is going to sound terrible, but it brings in a different caliber of people."
Meanwhile, residents are wondering who will complete projects left unfinished. Steve Velaski, an occupational therapist who moved into a new gated community called Province in 2005, likes his home on Lemon Drop Drive, which is near Jawbreaker Drive and Candyland Place. His wife, Gayle, enjoys the posh fitness center available to residents. But Mr. Velaski is less thrilled by the view from his backyard: a giant mound of dirt left when the community's builder went into bankruptcy. Mr. Velaski and other residents wonder who will acquire the empty land and whether whatever is eventually built there will blend well with their upscale homes.
Mr. Smith hopes that by creating more parks and other amenities and attracting more employers to this bedroom community he can make people want to stay here. "We have a very promising future," he says.
Rudy Dominguez, who administrates computer networks, will have to think that over. On a recent Saturday morning, he was hanging out in a white T-shirt and beige shorts at a garage sale being held by a neighbor who is moving away. Mr. Dominguez believes his Maricopa house now is worth about half the $213,000 he paid in 2006. He can afford the mortgage, but thinks the lender should reduce his payments. "If they're not going to help me," he says, "they can have it."—Tom McGinty contributed to this article.
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