Take a close look at an aerial map of Riverside County from a couple of years ago, and you will notice some strange crop-circle-like formations. These weren’t created by extraterrestrial life, but are in fact stalled single-family home developments, whose eerie, empty, post-apocalyptic streets contain signs displaying new home prices from nearly a decade ago. Together they tell the story of a region that was badly impacted by the housing bubble burst. The Inland Empire experienced a crushing number of foreclosures during the recession, going from an average of 2,500 a month in 2006 to about 10,000 a month by the end of 2011. The average home price in 2006 was $403,000, but had dropped to $172,000 just five years later.
According to some developers, however, things are beginning to turn around. The region’s economy is picking up, and these seemingly forgotten home sites are experiencing new life. Developers of communities such as Spring Hill Ranch, a planned 1,400 unit development in Riverside, are restarting the building process in anticipation of economic recovery in the region. Spring Hill Ranch has sat undeveloped since 2008, and owner IStar Financial now has an agreement with KB home to continue the project. Audie Murphy Ranch in Menifee, Pinnacle at Roripaugh Ranch in Temecula, and La Entrada near Coachella, are just a few example of projects that will build thousands of new homes in the next few years.
While this increase in housing stock will certainly help shortages and aid in economic recovery, much of it is low density suburban development. Leaders in the region must look critically at the types industries and workers it wants to attract, and match the housing being built with this demographic. Because post-recession economic activity in the Inland region was dominated by construction and real estate, the effects of residential foreclosures were magnified. According to a study prepared for the University of California, Riverside, about 40 percent of people who live in the Inland Empire commute to job centers in places such as LA, San Diego, and Orange County. This has an adverse effect, not only on traffic, but also on air quality and health.
Fortunately, middle-skill jobs, such as nursing, truck driving, and building inspection, are increasing in the region, and these jobs pay living wages. In fact, the City of Riverside was rated by Forbes as the 6th happiest city for young professionals in the country. The Inland Empire also has more than a couple respected educational institutions, such as the UC Riverside, La Sierra University, and Cal State San Bernardino. But high-achieving graduates of Inland Empire schools often leave the area, moving to LA, Orange County, or other places to find high-paying jobs. Many of these younger, educated workers do not want to commute 60 minutes to work every day. They would rather live in areas where they can easily access services and entertainment without a 20 minute car ride. Housing location is a key element of this lifestyle, and while there will likely always be a demand for low-density suburban housing, developers must also provide other, more dense options if the region is to become more attractive to a wider variety of residents.
What can be done to improve the jobs/housing balance in the Inland Empire so that people will want to live, work, and play in the region? Is your city struggling with similar issues and how are they overcoming them? Share your experiences in the comments below.
Credits: Stalled housing development image taken from Google Maps. Other images by Taylor York. Data linked to sources.