A Monument to Palmdale Housing Bust

Tulip. Fuchsia. Orchid. Lily. Pastoral street names all meant to evoke the image of suburban, lush greenery and beauty in the desert city of Palmdale. These names are registered on official maps in City Hall, but off Palmdale Boulevard they are only posted on temporary white signs. And those signs serve little purpose other than to catch dead tumbleweeds and to starkly remind any passerby of just how hard the housing crisis has slammed what once one of the fastest-growing cities in America.

Near the intersection of Orchid and Lily Way, two partially finished "model homes" sit within a few yards of each other. The outside stucco has been finished and the tiles for the roofs sit stacked in neat piles, waiting to be layered on. But on closer inspection, it's clear these two houses have been waiting for their roofs for a long time. There are no signs this is a working construction site. The doors and windows have been boarded up.

The two homes look out over a vast expanse of sand and scrub brush, interrupted only by a partially paved ring of streets. This is the state of home construction in Palmdale, where this one development has been sitting in a state of suspended animation for more than 18 months. The desert is a cruel and unforgiving preservationist.

During the housing boom years, new developments sprung up along Palmdale Boulevard, the city's main thoroughfare, as fast as contractors could truck in the materials and labor. And, seemingly overnight, land that was previously populated by gray-green yucca plants was converted into instant neighborhoods of single-family homes with red tile roofs. This development at Palmdale Boulevard and 55th Avenue was meant to hold 67 homes on 19.5 acres of cleared land. But today there is only sand, that road, and those white posts jammed in the dirt marking street intersections and driveways that don't exist.

The planning for this development started in November 2000, long before the housing boom and subsequent bust hit Palmdale. But getting the paperwork and surveying completed took years, and the developer, Rafferty Homes, didn't start building the two model houses until after final approval was granted on May 14, 2008.

Juan Carrillo, one of Palmdale's assistant city planners, worked on the new development at 55th Avenue. He said the real growth in housing started in 2004 and didn't peak until early 2008.

This development, then, broke ground "pretty much at the tippy-top" of the housing bubble, Carrillo said. It was almost literally like trying to build houses out of sand.

Rafferty Homes left the two model homes two-thirds completed when it declared bankruptcy a year and a half ago. The developer abandoned the project in July 2008, less than three months after breaking ground and after seven years of waiting to start the project. Sundance Imperial Holdings now owns the land .

The two model homes were boarded up with care. The developer took the time to spray paint the plywood that covers the windows and doors—all in the same color palate as the rest of the house. Despite the plywood, however, locals have broken down the doors. Beer cans and malt liquor bottles are strewn about inside, and there is graffiti on every wall inside the dark house. The red spray paint is definitely outside the designer's color palette. Tan or beige would have been better. The plywood has been punched out in one room on the second floor to let in some light, and the gang members who use this abandoned house as a hangout have moved in a couple folding chairs and an old kitchen table.

Apparently one model home is enough for this local gang; the house next door is open as well, but there is no graffiti on the walls. They remain finished and painted white but there are holes where intrepid scavengers have pillaged the copper wiring and piping.

The houses in this development promised the most in Palmdale luxury with multiple bedrooms, large dining rooms and grand master bathrooms, complete with raised bath/Jacuzzi. Despite being abandoned 18 months ago, the model homes still have that new-house smell. They were intended as affordable trophies to be snatched up at a moment in which expansion seemed unstoppable.

There are three other partially finished housing developments in Palmdale. Mega-home builders purchased them all after their original developers abandoned the properties. KB Homes is completing two developments while D.R.Horton has taken on the third. The Palmdale planning department's current focus is on bringing these stalled projects to fruition. There is also a smattering of new commercial development, and construction will start soon on a new gas station.

Despite the battered economy, Carrillo said people do visit the planning office to inquire about developments that were started or to initiate paperwork to buy a home. The market, however, has a long way to go before Palmdale regains anything near its previous status as a hotbed of new housing.

"Based on what we are seeing, the housing market is still very slow in Palmdale," Carrillo said.

He knows from hard, personal experience. Carrillo purchased a house in 2007 just down the road from the 55th Avenue development. "If we knew what was going to happen we wouldn't have," he said.

He drives by the two boarded-up model homes, with their view of cleared land and sand, every day on the way to his office in City Hall.

"I would like to see the project completed, since I worked on it," Carrillo said.

To date, no new developers have stepped forward to purchase the property. The two model homes remain curiously preserved in the desert landscape, memorials to a heady time not so very long ago.

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Excellent piece! I wonder if what's happening in Palmdale and other abandoned middle class neighborhoods, with gangs and the erosion of planned communities, reinforces the Broken Windows theory of crime? The connection between the two is pretty fascinating.

Hooray for this!

What a stark slideshow. Good grief. Could it be any closer to the Dust Bowl?

This piece really captures the housing bust. What a reversal of fortune. But maybe all for the good in the long run. Where would the water come from for those desert developments?