Amanda Kovattana

Middle-aged musings in interesting times

Monday, January 11, 2010

The Town The Boom Forgot

On the way to my claim in what is grandly known as the Inland Empire, I had ill timed my departure and was neatly waylaid by rush hour traffic swarming out of Los Angeles, hours of it. Looking for a bathroom I pulled off the 210 into a suburban shopping mall sporting all the usual chain stores. I picked Target and found one near the entrance.

This was the town of Upland. On our last trip we had been informed by a local, that Rancho Cuchamonga, the town next door, was the jewel of the Inland Empire. Newly spiffed out by the housing boom, this was the town that had perfected the art of upwardly mobile suburban living in brand new McMansions and all the amenities of convenience shopping. Naturally it held no appeal for me. As I fought my way out of the mall through Christmas shopping traffic, I was relieved to leave the bright lights behind for the town I had invested my hopes in. The town the boom had bypassed.

San Bernardino was known for riff raff and gang activity plus all the amenities of a poorer population—liquor stores, run down churches and paycheck cashing storefronts. As I pulled onto Waterman street, my heart rate went up for I was arriving alone after dark. All seemed calm. Turning off 9th street into my new neighborhood I was cheered by the many houses decorated with Christmas lights. I pulled up to our padlocked gate, let myself in and was further cheered by a night light our contractor had left on in the kitchen.

After locking the gate, then the iron security door, then the deadbolt, I surveyed the living room and was amused by a number of potted ferns in their black plastic nursery pots set out at the edges of the room, in the middle of which was a lone plastic patio chair and end table. Also left for me was an old space heater for the gas had not yet been turned on. I had been surprised to learn that this part of Southern California was as cold as it was 400 miles north, with every morning producing frost and a hankering for long underwear (which I had foreseen to pack.)

Pleased, I set up my plug-in kettle and a toaster oven and warmed up my all-organic TV dinner. Looking for something to do I took out a razor blade and set to scraping the latex paint off the vintage black tile of this original 1939 kitchen.

The beauty of a town that has been bypassed by the boom (apart from the original post war one that created these suburbs) is that no one has had any aspirations to improve on the existing housing stock. The draw for those who held investment property here was a rental market that could be managed on the cheap, for a population that had no where else to turn. The building boom in the neighboring towns had all but eliminated affordable rentals.

"I'm having a hard time picturing you as a landlord," said one of my colleagues used to perceiving me as a political leftist fighting to reverse development and save the planet. I, too, was adjusting to my new role as a land baron. An eco land baron for, with less than 1,000 square feet, my renters would automatically have a lighter footprint. And they would have to make do with the barest essentials in appliances, no dryer, tiny kitchens, retro one-fixture-per-room lighting and vintage décor. They would also have to endure my homemade organizational devices, experimental eco materials and a landscape that would never intentionally include a lawn. I was heady with the power of it.

Only a few of my friends understood why I might be charmed by a town of such bypassed prospects. Most ended the conversation as soon as I told them about the chain link fences or showed pictures of the houses we had bought. I tried to wow them, to no avail, with the statistic that a population of 200,000 could only support one Starbucks; that here was a town unspoiled by shopping malls and chain restaurants. I didn't get a chance to reveal how at peace I felt in it and how I had a curious desire to live there (but probably not in the searing heat of summer). Living small while protected by a grand mountain range, I felt contained and complete in this town.

The Stuff That Dreams Are Made Of

The locals however did not feel they had been bypassed, but that their time was still to come. The nearby air force base, having been decommissioned, was now designated an international airport complete with new 80 million dollar passenger terminal and signage. Everybody mentioned how the airport would make San Bernardino the new boom town. It was less than two miles from our property, but I was not worried. If you want to make a peak oil activist laugh just talk about your investment in air travel.

Said airport had yet to entice a single passenger airline despite lower landing fees. Airlines still looking for growth preferred to base themselves at the more established airport in Ontario, 25 miles away. Having also been bypassed by DHL, Federal Express and UPS, the only customers were second-string cargo planes and firefighting planes. But it did play a distinguishing role as a set for the film industry, the X-files and such.

The last time San Bernardino thrived was during the Cold War when the military bases were fully active. When the bases closed, shipping and warehousing for imported goods took up the slack. (80% of imported goods entering California come through the Inland Empire.) Already diminished by the recession, the shipping industry will likely suffer the same future as air travel as fuel costs rise. Once a fuel deprived de-globalization overcomes us, a resurgence of local manufacturing could fill the empty warehouses, contingent on existing rail transport and later perhaps sailing ships up and down the coast. There was still substantial agriculture in the area—a viable long term industry (drought permitting).

I did not bring up my analysis with local residents. Far be it for me to dash anyone's hopes, invested as they were in obsolete dreams. The recent housing boom wasn't based on industry at all, but was more a refurbishing, fueled by easy credit and the McMansion trend. Mike our contractor, described the housing development planned for downtown where several old residences had been condemned. The new development would have a man-made lake, he told me, impressed by the vision.

Of all the things to put in the dessert, I thought, but did not protest. I was lucky to have a man with extensive experience rehabbing. His Craigslist ad told of how he was retired, but loved what he did and that he needed money for his 10 year old boy who was awaiting a kidney transplant.

Also on hand to help was Mark, a friend from the Bay Area. Mark had bought, at the age of 23, his own house in a little town called Snowshoe, in Pennsylvania, where he had made a living as a handyman. Twenty years later the house had become more albatross than liberator so Mark set himself free by donating it to a local charity, driving off in his live-in van with iPhone. He arrived two days after I did.

I met Mark through my friend Dave who was my housemate at the time. Mark was in the habit of asking a new friend to cut his hair each time he was in need of a trim. I was next in line. Luckily it was very forgiving curly hair. I noted that it was a bit longer now. Looking dapper in his vintage thrift store clothing and brimmed hat, he had brought with him his iPod-driven homemade boom box and a stack of DVDs — independent films from the library that we watched on our laptops.

The Kindness of Strangers

On the first night, after a full days work, Mark persuaded me to walk down the street to find our dinner. I was dubious that we would find more than a liquor store, but we did eventually happen on a Thai restaurant in what looked like an old drive-in. The food wasn't bad; the décor improvised with travel posters and a TV tuned to the sports channel. On the wall was a flyer for a Thai real estate agent showing a house similar to one of ours for $80,000. (After what we spent to rehab our two houses we would come out a bit ahead of that.)

Despite the low budget decor of the town, I was reassured that the community was viable mostly because the people were so nice. Mark remarked on this too and we started asking ourselves if it wasn't so much that people were nice here, but that they were not so nice in the Bay Area. Perhaps the need to be a contender in the land of innovation had set the tone. Overwork and outsized expectations hung in the air; everyone needed to be a star to compete. In San Bernardino, just getting through the day was enough. Ordinariness seemed to foster kindness.

We spent much of the week on the project scraping away the sins of previous tenants—packing tape residue on the walls, countless nail holes, slopped on latex paint that melted when scrubbed, grease covered dust webs. Not to mention the negligence and outright incompetence of the previous owner. Apart from ignoring virtually all maintenance, his contribution as a tile layer was soon found out. The tile in the shower was so skimpily adhered, it only took 40 minutes to pull it off. And water was seeping so far under the windowsill in this shower it was wearing a hole through the wall.

We heard more about him from a passing neighbor who told Mark that the owner would come to the property stinking drunk and yell at his tenants. "At least you should pretend you're not drunk," the neighbor concluded. This amused Mark and me greatly—that allowances could be made if you at least pretended you weren't behaving badly.

No wonder the neighbors were smiling at us. We were bringing a hope of decency. The houses had been on the market for over a year. Just to have someone buy the property was a vote of confidence that the neighborhood was worth the effort and things were turning around.

Back To The Future

I hoped so, too, since we had to eventually pay for the work being done here, but the draw for me was more personal. In part nostalgia—an attempt to roll back time to a sensibility when lifestyles still seemed reasonable. According to US census data, the average house size in 1982 was 1,520 square feet. In 2002 it was 2,114 square feet. Human need did not grow larger houses; the conceptualizing of the family home as an investment vehicle did. And then, of course, increasing amounts of stuff made it seem necessary. All that turned out to be the downfall of more than just our economy. People's lives and communities changed too.

A neighborhood of small houses was manageable. I could see that neighbors looked out for each other. The kid next door thanked me for throwing his Frisbee back over the wall then stayed to chat. His playmate lived across the street. At 12, sitting atop the wall between us, he was master of his domain.

A complaint of one of my clients was that she had to drive her kids to their playmates; they were stranded otherwise. I also heard of a manager who described his new hires as suffering from a lifetime of scheduled playdates. Though bright, they lacked the ability to organize their teams to get things done. Isolated like this, kids had been deprived of the opportunity to manage their own lives and work out their own problems. Ah the irony of wealth.

In a community where home sizes were frozen at 1950 averages (983 sq. ft), I had a chance to envision a different future without having to undo the bloated built environment of a lifestyle seriously out of wack with what resources we had left. I wanted these small houses to be nice so the tenants would be happy living there and wouldn't associate small with grungy, broken down and poor. Rather they would be efficient, cozy and organized, easy to keep clean and with less space for junk to accumulate. Plus each yard had enough land for a substantial kitchen garden—a component of sustainable living. Working on these houses felt real for rather than creating a fantasy life to guide my pursuits, my play was now affecting a real environment, a real future.

On the last day, as I was packed ready to leave and the roof was being torn off on the front house, a young couple came by asking Mike if the houses were for rent. Word had got out. They told him the going rate for what they had looked at already. It was a couple hundred more than what we were asking. That was great news. We were keeping the rent at what it had been (which was probably all the previous owner could get for his wretchedness). With property values slipping so badly we had thought we would have to drop even that rent. Now we could feel good about cleaning up the place and still being under market. I was beginning to enjoy this future.

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At 7:39 PM, Blogger Fonk said...

Sounds like you're going to do pretty well on your investment! It's always nice when you can be under market and still make money. I also love restoring old houses; I just find the architecture so much more interesting, as well as just havinga warmer feel.

We've had a different turn of luck with our recent real estate investment (a newer cabin up in Fairplay, CO). Our propane tank ran out of fuel over the hoilidays and a couple pipes burst. I had lots o' fun mopping up water over the wknd. The joys of being a homeowner/investor... :)

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