Thursday, September 3, 2009

Phoenix Burning

Phoenix was like this for me, mid-August 2009.

Hot.

But there's lots of hot in Phoenix in summer. Heat is a big category.

The house of a good friend, Jerome, is not so hot. Purchased for $280K two years ago, now appraised at $140K. My buddy has an upside-down mortgage.

Across the street, a house vacant, then occupied, and days later, a sign offering to do car repairs curbside. Vacant houses everywhere. At the main intersection into the neighborhood, some bushes where several men lived for a few weeks this summer.

Not exactly the "hot" real estate market realtors talk-up, but there's interesting ideas about occupation and territory and ownership being worked out.

People use shopping carts to i-haul groceries, leave carts setting out, entrepreneurs with flatbed trucks retrieve carts, probably sell them back to the retail establishments.

Deep informality courses through this very formal place. People find cracks to claim, to make their own and their way.

The Lux coffee shop, a hangout for designers and architects. In the recent past, not too crowded, everybody with jobs. Now full, overflowing, overbrewed. For the price of a coffee free internet. A friend tells me it's a great place to network. Another friend says it's a bunch of unemployed people networking with other unemployed people. It's not-working as net-working.

The Chateaux on Central Complex. The corner of Central Avenue and Palm Lane. If you google it, you'll find the website is shut down. According to Phoenix-based realtor weknowurban.com:

"Chateaux on Central is a 21 unit, gated, brownstone style, luxury single family home community reminiscent of high end areas in Boston, or Chicago, or New York. Chateaux are all brick and masonry with turn of the 20th Century style. Each is four stories tall with a basement and 2 private underground parking spaces. Each brownstone comes with its own private elevator, dining terrace, roof top terrace, and optional fireplace, private pool, spa, BBQ, and more. Sizes range from 5,100 to over 8,200 livable square feet..."

So we went there and it's not just the website that's closed, the work site is five levels of vacancy and abandonment. Very unhot. Prices in the $2 million to $4 million range. None sold. Work stopped, just short of completion. Indications that workers were told to leave immediately -- STOP setting those pavers! STOP installing doors! STOP WHATEVER YOU'RE DOING AND GET OFF THE JOBSITE NOW!!! (One imagines.)

Just one example: indications (rust!) that the wrought iron fences and gates were brought to the job site without a final coat of shop paint, so there's rusting in places, at weld joints, with the fences and gates sickly affixed to brick columns with very cheap hardware, chains and padlocks replace any sort of proper fitting and security. The crummiest of installations.


Famous now, featured in the July 5, 2009 New York Times Magazine, "Ruins of the Second Gilded Age: What the Real Estate Boom Has Left Behind," as written by Charles Wilson and photographed by Edgar Martins:

". . . early 2007, city's high-end condo market oversaturated, prices started to fall, the developer Central PHX Partners declared bankruptcy. A local commercial lender, Mortgages Ltd stepped in that year with an offer to provide nearly $50 million in loans to help Central PHX complete construction. Deal soured, in March 2008 the developer sued Mortgages, claiming the lender had not made promised payments. On June 2, 2008, the CEO of Mortgages, Scott Coles [48], committed suicide. At the time, one-third of his company's loans were in default. Remains unoccupied and unfinished."

We drive southeast, to Chandler. There, a concrete HULK stopped, vacated, defiant, alone.

I'm aware of the Sun. Hide in the shadows.


West of Phoenix, a massive office park in Avondale, just a suntan lotion drop of small tenants. Otherwise nothing, no life, nothing. The Sun.

Massive new residential areas. It's difficult to know how many are occupied. It's 105 degrees, plus/minus heat stroke and dehydration, so why be outside, and mid-afternoon on a Thursday and Friday, but still, dead still, no children's toys, no wear-and-tear on playground equipment, only a few garbage cans.

How do you tell, in such a place, if anyone is around when no one is around?

We find a couple of houses, new, never occupied. Front, back, and side doors open, dust and sand everywhere, with full kitchen cabinets, even a new electrical breaker box on the outside.

It's odd, Phoenix. People out of work, needing money, and here, unlike in many other distressed neighborhoods I've visited in the Rust Belt, no one is scavenging or scrapping out these houses.


In another neighborhood, which appears to have significant vacancy, at least six houses under construction, crews working, materials delivered, there's nothing going on except building out a contract. I guess.

It appears that there is a larger turnaround underway. First-time house buyers are getting good deals and the market is heating up, a little, again. At least this is what one reads on-line, maybe at The Lux, but the quietness and emptiness and hollowness on the ground, along with the pristine quality of the abandonment, causes me to marvel at the contradictions and complexities and how it all plays out, at the moment, in lives.


Jerome's story is of a contemporary squatter in the desert. Modern Man. It's likely that he and his wife will stop making payments on their upside-down house and it's their best guess that it will take at least six months for the holders of the mortgage to figure out that they're not paying--processors are overwhelmed with such decisions and ramifications. A bankruptcy lawyer told him of a client who stopped paying a $3000/month mortgage 2.5 years ago, and still hasn't been found out.

I have no estimate of the numb-er of persons who are involved in or will be taking such an approach. Obviously, one bankruptcy lawyer, working out of her dining room for $200 an hour, hasn't figured out something that a lot of others haven't figured out, anticipated, planned for, and participated in.

I like that Jerome was about to leave town, had just returned from another major city to look for a job and a neighborhood. And by stopping mortgage payments, he'll stay in Phoenix, his talent and energy stay in Phoenix. And somebody stays in the house, doing minimal maintenance, but maintaining nonetheless.

And I like that Jerome, his wife, their bankruptcy lawyer, and most of their friends have complicated and enlarged the "squatter" category for me, along with the "abandoned house" category.

Jerome is like and unlike the squatter Keith Austin who I met in Flint, Michigan several years ago. Like, in that neither is paying for housing, both are unemployed, both are downsizing, both maintain their places of occupation, both talk openly of their situation, both live in falling cities (one Rust Belt, one Sun Belt). Unlike, in how each is watched--Jerome maybe is watched by his overwhelmed bank, but certainly not the police or his neighbors, while Keith has no mortgage, but is watched by citizens, neighbors, and others who want no part of an obvious squatter in their neighborhood. Unlike, in that I have no idea where Keith is now, and I can reach Jerome through several emails and telephones.

Unlike Keith, who I spoke to once for twenty minutes, I've known Jerome for fifteen years. He's a great friend, former student of mine, and design collaborator. We've traveled the world together, won design awards together, share a lot of very good friends.

And tonight, Jerome is in Phoenix, squatting.

for more photographs from Phoenix see:

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