Monday, July 21, 2008 | The housing market in City Heights is like the makeup of the community itself: diverse and eclectic, with scores of styles and influences juxtaposed in the people and buildings that comprise the community.
In the 16 neighborhoods in City Heights, an estimated 30 languages and 80 dialects of those languages are spoken. Government and private redevelopment efforts, including a new library and a new police station, have begun to root out blight from the community in recent years.
But City Heights is struggling under the continuing housing market collapse. The 92105 ZIP code recently ranked 14th among nearly 100 county ZIP codes for foreclosures per 1,000 homes, according to DataQuick Information Systems.
The price per square foot paid for detached homes in the ZIP has fallen by nearly 50 percent since summer 2006, according to DataQuick. In several months of boom years like 2006, buyers paid more than $400 per square foot for detached homes. In May, 17 houses sold for a median of $220 per square foot.
Repossessed homes have brought values down but currently comprise the lion’s share of what sells in this market, area real estate agent Marigold Hernly said.
A large majority of the homes on the market in 92105 are distressed properties. Repossessed houses count for 18 percent of the 169 detached houses on the resale market as of Tuesday. Short sale listings with asking prices of less than the seller owes on the mortgage comprise another 47 percent of those listings.
And of the 51 sales of detached homes already in escrow in the community, 24 of them are being sold after being repossessed by the bank.
Such is the state of the City Heights housing market. Although much research often comes out on a county level, a market seen from that distance is often vague, nearly impossible to diagnose with much precision.
On the ground in City Heights, homes on the market are nearly all priced within the lowest third in San Diego County. The lowest tier, homes priced under $379,636, ascended nearly 200 percent in the first six years of the decade with the help of easy-to-get mortgages — the largest increase of any tier, according to the most recent Standard & Poor’s/Case-Shiller home price index.
Home prices in that tier have fallen 36 percent from the tier’s June 2006 peak, leaving scores of homeowners struggling under the weight of mortgages they obtained for properties that are now worth a lot less than they owe.
The fad of converting apartment buildings for sale as condos hit City Heights right as financing became easier for buyers to obtain a few years ago.
In 2006, buyers paid more than $300 per square foot for condos or townhomes on the resale market in City Heights. In May this year, buyers in the community paid $133 per square foot on resale condos — a drop of nearly 60 percent, according to DataQuick.
On the detached side, the 169 listings range from $88 to $570 per square foot, with a median of $247. The median total price is $275,000.
City Heights stretches south of El Cajon Boulevard to State Route 94 and east from Interstate 805 to a zigzagged boundary of Home Avenue, Euclid Avenue and Chollas Parkway. Some who live and work there say it sometimes feels like a San Diego step-child, a community often plagued by a reputation for crime and gang activity. It’s not a popular first stop for house-hunters, unlike nearby sought-after neighborhoods like Golden Hill, Kensington, Normal Heights and North Park.
“They think of what they see on the 11 o’clock news,” Hernly said. “Nobody goes on the Internet and searches 92105.”
There are pockets in the 16 neighborhoods that shock house-hunters expecting a house tour typified by chain-link fences or vacant lots. Some streets are quaint, tree-lined. One neighborhood of World War II-era small, Spanish Revival and ranch-style homes called Islenair was even built by the same developer as Kensington, a popular upper-end community uptown. There’s a quiet community of duplexes called Bayridge. Several of the neighborhoods are “not fancy, but sweet,” Hernly said.
Persistent buyers can sometimes find comparable homes within a block of bordering neighborhoods like South Park or Normal Heights for sometimes $100,000 less.
The work of government and private agencies to spruce up the community has been slowed by the flood of foreclosures dousing many of its neighborhoods.
Pat Galloway of Price Charities, one of the most active private organizations that have invested heavily in the neighborhood, said her organization is fighting not to be bowled over by the trend. The group started purchasing and fixing up houses and apartment buildings that had been allowed to fall into disrepair after the last housing downturn.
“It was our intention initially to curtail the blight in City Heights,” she said. “This whole foreclosure crisis seemingly puts us back to where we started. We’re desperately trying to curtail blight again.”
One goal of that fight is to preserve the unique elements in many of the neighborhoods. Hernly lives in Fairmount Park, one of the City Heights neighborhoods, and sells houses throughout the community. She drove through the community on a recent afternoon, excitedly gesturing at actual turrets on houses in the Castle neighborhood and reciting her favorite ethnic eateries.
Passing a throng of pedestrians clothed in a wide spectrum of colors and textures, she touted the community’s juxtapositions of cultures and religions and nationalities. Hernly was a naval engineer for more than two decades, building “ships for 12 years and missiles for 10.” But her love for this community sparked Hernly’s real estate career after General Dynamics left town.
“This is a neighborhood where we know each other, where we care about each other,” she said. “We have to stick together to live here.”
Capt. Guy Swanger, of the San Diego Police Department’s mid-city division, said some of the work by nonprofits has helped change the community.
“There are a number of things happening in that neighborhood to turn it from a place where people are ending up into a place that people want to go to,” he said.
“I think City Heights is a lot safer that it was 10 years ago. Even our calls for service are down,” Swanger added. “That doesn’t deal with perception, the fear of crime and a transitory population. … I think we have a long way to go.”
Sharon Martin is a real estate agent who occasionally sells homes in City Heights or takes buyers to look there.
“I think it’s a neighborhood that’s going to see some more change,” Martin said. “This too shall pass and in the next few years it’ll be a desirable neighborhood again.”
Hernly’s tour from street to street, from block to block, revealed some of those issues community residents and nonprofits are worried about. Some foreclosed properties had chain-link fences, peeling paint. Overgrown and dead lawns were other signs of distress.
But then, Hernly turned the corner and pulled over in her minivan on a street edging one of the community’s canyons.
“You have to have a vision. These are million-dollar views,” she said.