In the places hit hardest by the housing crash, hundreds of thousands of people lost their homes. Behind each of those transactions was a long chain of people who participated in a system of lending that was unsustainable. This is the story of one of those people — Kristal Wilson. Wilson is a realtor in Riverside, California, a city of about 300,000 people in the Inland Empire. Riverside is known, above all else, for its orange groves.
“20, 30 years ago, when I was growing up, you would open up the windows in the morning and bam there was that smell of oranges in the air, ” says Rusty Bailey, who was born and raised in Riverside. He taught government at the high school for 10 years. Now he’s the mayor.
Oranges are no longer the main industry. “It’s phased out from being oranges to rooftops,” Bailey says, pointing out of the window of his office to the east. “There’s one more large grove out there.”
In the distance, framed by the San Bernardino Mountains, is the Gless Family Ranch, where one of the last remaining commercial groves still stands. It’s across the street from a master-planned community called Orange Crest.
“I always say that Orange Crest really is orange groves, palm trees and families,” says Kristal Wilson. She moved to Orange Crest 13-years-ago and started a realty business. For a while things went spectacularly well.
Before the crash, the city was ranked fourth in the nation in home value appreciation.
“I can remember calling my family in Georgia,” Wilson recalls, the pitch of her voice rising with excitement. “‘Look at what my house is valued at this year!’”
Wilson sold a lot of houses in Orange Crest. She took me to neighborhoods where she sold nearly every house. And many of those sales were done with 100 percent financing. And because property values were rising so quickly, Wilson encouraged people to use the equity in their new home to move up.
“You could always move up — ‘We got our starter home, let’s move to our next home the big McMansion.’ Everyone was doing it,” she says.
When the housing bubble burst, more than 220,000 houses were foreclosed on in Riverside County — one of the highest rates in the nation.
“There was a lot of shame and embarrassment,” Wilson says. “People didn’t want to talk about it. Neighbors disappeared overnight.”
By 2008, Wilson could see signs of foreclosures all around her.
“The grass was the first thing to go. And a lot of these homes had pools. If they weren’t concerned about keeping up the grass, you knew the pools were horrible,” Wilson remembers. Worries of West Nile virus spread as backyard pools became breeding grounds for mosquitoes.
Wilson took me on a tour of this area, where nearly one in five houses has been in foreclosure since 2008. As a result, Wilson’s business shifted. She went from selling new homes to doing short sales for families she had just put into those new houses. That, she says, “was a really difficult thing and still is because you are seeing someone’s life implode.”
Many of those people got angry at Wilson for selling them a house they couldn’t afford.
“I was probably the easiest visible target, and so a lot of people were perturbed with me. But I think it was a big learning lesson for everyone in the housing market. You truly need to be aware of what you are signing.”
Wilson’s first name is Kristal, and the tag line of her business is “making your realty transactions Kristal clear.” Before the crash she didn’t always live up to that. She is much more upfront now about what her clients can afford. She says she’s learned a lot from the crash.
“Sometimes,” she says, “I am going to tell you things you are not going to love, but I have to be honest so that you are very much an informed buyer — and before I really didn’t say that. It was easier to just go along with the program.”
One of the last stops on the tour of Orange Crest was a street named Millionaire Lane. Today it looks like a suburban street in any town in America. The dead grass has come back to life, the pools are being maintained again. Wilson is starting to see what she calls boomerang buyers — people who lost their homes but are ready to buy again. And with that, the tour was over and Wilson headed back to her office. She had a short sale to close later that day.
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