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2010 Census Bears Out Southwest’s Building Blunders

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Danica Tapia used to love her house. “I think it is the prettiest house on the block,” said Tapia, standing in the street out front. It’s a two-story light-brown stucco. “I think this is the Spanish style front of the options you could choose,” Tapia said. She and her husband bought the house in Brawley, California for $385,000 back in 2007.

It was their first home. Tapia was 20 and had a good-paying job with the state. She and her husband planned to start a family. She’d look at her house and fantasize about what life would be like. “I would imagine boys coming to the door to date my daughter, all kinds of different scenarios about the future, our life in this house, all the time, all the time,” says Tapia.

But, this dream home soon turned into a nightmare for the Tapias, like homes have for thousands of families throughout the Southwestern United States.

The 2010 Census confirms just how dismal the housing market has been. In Arizona, building far outpaced population growth. More than 7,000 homes sit empty in Las Vegas. California wasn’t spared. The Imperial County, where Brawley lies, illustrates what happened.

The Tapias house, built in 2007, is one of the county’s 12,000 new homes constructed since 2000. It's in a development called La Paloma.

Tapia shows off the kid’s nursery and playroom. She hand painted murals in both. She had visions of her kids growing up there. But, the view out the playroom’s window is a stark reminder of why that vision won’t come to pass.

Tumbleweeds cover hundreds of acres of empty land where the developer promised two schools, parks and 1,800 homes.

About a year after the Tapias moved in, the developer went belly up. Just 10 homes were built. “This was no longer a premium community. This was a house in a field, it turned into, “ laments Tapia.

In the last 10 years, the number of homes in Imperial County grew by 27 percent. At the same time, the number of vacant homes jumped by 54 percent. It’s a trend seen around many parts of California, Arizona and Nevada.

Developers overestimated demand. The mortgage crisis hit. Property values tumbled.

Down the road from the Tapia’s, the remnants of a development called Lucky Ranch are another good example. Streetlights rise up from the tumbleweeds. Eight hundred homes were planned. Ten were built.

“Last ones moved out because the city told them they had to because of the lack of sewer service, “ says Gordon Gaste, Brawley’s city planner.

Gaste says the developer let families move in before it hooked up the homes to the sewer line. He says it fell to the city to pump out the big septic tank every week.

Vacant homes like these saddle cities and counties with problems. They bring in less tax income. They present safety concerns. They bring down housing prices and that further hurts the economy.

Gaste tries the door to one of the model homes. It’s open. “Which I have to report to the building officials,” says Gaste. “Sometimes you get vagrants in houses like this.”

Inside, the house is trashed. The sliding door to the back patio is broken. Thieves hacked open the walls to steal copper piping and wires. The smoke alarms chirped, warning low battery, like a symphony of an abandoned home. It’s the same story at the model home next door, where books, that were decorations, are the only things left that can be carried away.

Back in the Tapia’s living room, she and her husband were determined to stay put even though their property value was plummeting. “As long as I could make my payment, I was going to stay here,” says Tapia.

That was three years ago. Now, she and her husband have sold their home for less than half of what they paid for it. “When I look out the window, I see 6-foot tumbleweeds. So I will be happy to move into a home, even if it is a rental, where I can look out and see a community and not my broken heart and broken dreams across the street,” Tapia said.

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