In Inland Empire Economic Distress May Drive Voters

Each weekday at noon, on the front lawn of the Riverside Courthouse, hundreds of thousands of dollars change hands in the auction of homes recently foreclosed in Riverside County. Events like this one are held each day here — and in San Bernardino, Chino, Fontana and other Inland Empire cities hit hard by the housing bust.

Bidders, many working for housing speculators, sit in lawn chairs with little blue awnings to protect themselves from the brutal noon sun.

Behind each auction is a story. A person, a family. People who reached for the American dream, but couldn’t hold onto it.

As the auction continues, I ask one of the bidders — Long Beach realtor Jesus Quintaro — if he ever thinks about the former owners who lost the homes he’s bidding on. “I do think about it,” he says, “but a lot of them got a lot of money out of their homes. They refinanced. Some may be victims — but a lot of them made the choice to refinance, get money out, or get into a home they couldn’t afford in the first place.

Another bidder, John Chang from Orange County, sees complains that the media portray investors who buy up foreclosed homes as vultures. He says they’re making a contribution — putting people to work.

“There is termite work that needs to be done.” he tells me. “There’s materials that needs to be bought in order to fix up these houses. There’s realtors involved that need to sell these homes. There’s escrow people involved, title insurance — I mean, there’s a lot of people involved in the transaction of (selling a house).

Just a few blocks away, in a small room at the Fair Housing Council of Riverside, Jose Moreno is working with a counselor. He is trying to refinance two properties — his home and another he uses as an office. They’re under water now and he needs a new loan. He sees his future plans sinking as well.

“You know I move to a smaller house, I sell them, and that’s gonna be my retirement plan,” he tells me. “But now my retirement plan is gone, because there’s nothing there.”

The sprawling counties of Riverside and San Bernardino are known locally as “The Inland Empire,” and it has had one of the highest foreclosure rates in California. And according to U.S. Census data, black and Latino homeowners have been hit the hardest.

Rose Mayes, executive director of the Riverside Fair Housing Council, says what worries her most is the impact it’s having on people’s mental health.

“We had a client come in and say he’d rather commit suicide than just continue go through this loan modification process,” she says. “And we told him no, it’s not worth it. You can always bounce back.”

But bouncing back could take a very long time, says economist John Husing. He’s been studying housing and job trends here for decades. And Husing says the fundamental problem here is the housing mess.

It “starts in Imperial County, goes through the Inland Empire, goes through Kern, straight up the valley, up to Sacramento and down the I-80,” he says.

Husing says the reason economic pain in California is concentrated inland is that state politics are dominated by politicians from the western part of the state — especially Los Angeles and San Francisco. The eastern part of the state has been “impotent politically,” he says. “Whether it’s Stanislaus County or Madera County or Modesto County, or the Inland Empire.” Those are all counties with the highest unemployment rates in California. And isn’t hard here to find people with stories of economic distress.

At a public pool in Riverside late one afternoon, parents sat watching their children swim.

School principal Robert Bruff says he’s personally doing OK in this economy, but he hears from a lot of families that are not. “I’ve had kids who have missed school for three days and I say, ‘why weren’t you here? Well, we don’t have gas money.’ So if it’s a choice of between macaroni and cheese for dinner and driving your kid to school that day, you gotta eat.

When I asked if he thinks government is doing enough to fix the economy Bruff, a Democrat, is circumspect. “I think government’s been doing what it can to help lead us out,” he said. “I don’t think there’s an easy fix. Whether you’re liberal or conservative, people I think if they knew the button to push, they’d push it.

One sentiment I heard a lot on my visit to the Inland Empire is that many here feel overlooked, misunderstood — invisible.

The Inland Empire Economic Partnership is working to create a stronger political voice for this region. Paul Granillo is its executive director and a former Catholic priest from San Bernardino. He jokes that he was hired because the region needs a miracle.

But Granillo gets angry at what he sees as neglect from the federal government. “It’s been us and Las Vegas who’ve suffered the most,” he says. “It’s the same with unemployment for regions over a million people. Us, Las Vegas Detroit. Now when do you ever hear about the Inland Empire? You know about Detroit. You know about Vegas.”

That could be about to change. For the past few decades, this region’s Congressional seats have been mostly considered safe territory for Republicans.

But demographic changes, redistricting, and the retirement of veteran GOP Congress members is giving Democrats hope of winning one or even two House seats.

It means both parties will likely campaign hard in those races, giving the Inland Empire what it’s been craving — attention from politicians.

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