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Optimism Is Fresh Arrival in California Cul-de-Sac

Phil Winkler pays a neighborhood kid to mow his lawn, that small-bore transaction of the American suburb, where adults are generally busy and teenagers offer a price that’s right. But for Mr. Winkler, the relinquishing of his mower was something remarkable.

Only a few months ago, he was selling auto parts on eBay to help pay his bills. Out of work, he depended on his wife and his unemployment checks to keep his family clothed and fed. The situation was much the same in the homes around his: unemployed dads, women on small salaries carrying the weight, home repairs and yard work relegated to adults with too much time to spare.

Pockets of America are haltingly on the mend, and the Beth Court cul-de-sac here is one of them. A dozen lives unraveled on the block during the recession; now the empty houses are full, and Mr. Winkler and the other fathers are working again.

AP

The remnants of financial disaster linger. Many neighbors have no credit cards. Repossessed family cars have not been replaced. Vacation destinations remain for most the stuff of advertisements in newspapers from which coupons continue to be clipped.

But hanging on has been replaced, in part, by holding steady.

The teacher who got a pink slip last spring has been hired by a new school, and the guy on the corner who had struggled for months with the bank over his mortgage finally got a loan modification. The lawn of an empty house, littered with broken bikes and weeds over the summer, has been made pristine once more by its new owners.

“Things are pretty much better around here,” said Eladio Soto, a landscaper, who is among the unemployed fathers who has found work again. “I am thinking about a little minivan. That’s my life goal right now.”

Beginning last January, The New York Times made regular visits to Beth Court, about 60 miles east of downtown Los Angeles, to chronicle how the foreclosure crisis had reshaped a middle-class neighborhood. Four of the eight houses went through foreclosure, and the others barely escaped the same fate. Beth Court was a microcosm of a nation in deep recession, a block of neighbors whose bad choices — often with the complicity of lending agencies — came crashing into a global economic downturn.

Now, a year later, California’s unemployment rate continues to grow, its housing market remains depressed and the state’s fiscal situation is dire. But the economic and policy shifts that are slowly changing parts of the country are also making a mark here.

Mr. Winkler, a factory worker, was hired at the end of September by Kimberly-Clark at the company’s mill in Fullerton, about 50 miles from here. He had gone more than year without a job.

The commute is long, and so are the hours. When he works the overnight shift, he can go days without seeing his two daughters, who had become accustomed to Mr. Winkler’s shuttling them to and from school and taking charge in times of trouble at home.

When Eva, the 12-year-old, was doing poorly in school, Mr. Winkler literally followed her from class to class for a week. She did not care for it. Good thing for both of them she is on the honor roll now, he said.

“I’m not going to complain,” Mr. Winkler said the other day at his dining room table. “It’s a lot of work and a lot of hours, but it’s more interesting than my old job because I stay so busy. I have insurance for the kids. I’m happy. I’m thankful. And in four months, I’ll be getting a raise.”

His next-door neighbor, Mr. Soto, has managed to steady his home life after being forced to sell his house to make ends meet. He has reduced his monthly housing costs by about $900 by renting back from the new owner. He misses the large truck, repossessed by his lender, that had ferried his family of seven.

“We don’t go places as a family anymore,” Mr. Soto said. “The other day my daughter’s band was playing in Pomona, so my wife had to stay with some kids here. I am a little sad about that.”

In recent years, nearly every homeowner on Beth Court took thousands of dollars of equity out of their homes as values skyrocketed; properties that cost $120,000 in 1997 were worth more than $350,000 at the height of the market.

The balloons have since floated back to earth, and the way houses are paid for has, too. Of the four houses on Beth Court that were foreclosed on between October 2008 and August 2009, two are now owned by families that got loans through the federal Housing Finance Agency program that allows borrowers to buy homes with lower down payments than conventional loans.

Hardship and good news

One of them is the Almeida family. Joy now nearly bursts from the doors of their home at 11054 Beth Court, a two-story house with three bedrooms and a nice backyard. Last summer, it was a house in foreclosure, where children sat home alone in front of the television while their mother marched dolefully to her job at the mall.

In late October, the house was bought by Jose Almeida for $150,000, about 70 percent of what the previous owners paid for it in 2003. It is the Almeidas’ first home; they previously lived in an apartment in a struggling neighborhood in Los Angeles.

“We put down everything we have, but we’re so happy,” said Mr. Almeida, standing with his wife, Maria, on the newly tiled kitchen floor. “It’s so quiet at night, my wife says to me, ‘How come we can’t hear anything?’ ”

Connie and Ted Hanson were anomalies on the sidelines of Beth Court — retired, older and living at the entrance to the cul-de-sac on adjoining Parkland Avenue. Having saved and spent wisely over the decades, they were able to travel to Europe each summer and take off in their camper whenever the whim grabbed them, as it often did.

And for years, they were the glue that kept the neighborhood together — leading the neighborhood association, tending to neglected front lawns, checking in on troubled friends and giving odd jobs to the neighborhood kids.

But the Hansons’ daughter lost her teaching job in Northern California last summer, and in a sudden reversal of fortunes, the Hansons now look to the neighborhood for support as they have taken in their daughter and her two sons, ages 13 and 9. (Turtles and tarantulas were part of the package.)

The Hansons once paid the Winkler girls to feed their cat and water the plants while they were away; now their 13-year-old grandson cuts the Winklers’ lawn. The strain of three new mouths to feed and that many more loads of laundry is upon the Hansons.

“It’s not exactly a hardship,” Mr. Hanson said. “We’re still going to Europe next year.”

“Yes, but we don’t have the extra income anymore,” Mrs. Hanson countered. “You go to spend $100 now and you think twice.”

There is still joblessness on the block, but Adrian Blanco, who lost his job as an electrician when he hurt his back a year ago, shares the unyielding sense of optimism here these days. After months of being rebuffed for a mortgage modification — something many troubled homeowners have run into — Mr. Blanco got his monthly payment reduced.

Mr. Blanco and his wife, Gloria, had just come back from a leisurely walk on a recent Sunday afternoon, relaxing together for the first time in months.

“I haven’t found work yet, and I am in constant pain,” he said. “But I’m happy. I’m still here.”

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