Yuba homebuyers face mounting commuting costs
By Jim Wasserman - firstname.lastname@example.org
Published 12:00 am PDT Sunday, June 1, 2008
Gracie and Louis Prado moved to Yuba County's new commuter subdivisions later than most people, arriving just 16 months ago from Elk Grove. But they came for the same reason thousands did since 2002: more elbow room and a big house for less money.
Yet the trade the Prados made for a bargain home just south of the county seat of Marysville Ã¢â‚¬â€œ a long commute to work in Sacramento Ã¢â‚¬â€œ is now chewing on their incomes. As they make their way back and forth on Highway 70, the spike in gas prices is sucking an estimated $200 to $250 a week from their wallets.
"We just didn't think gas would go to $4 a gallon," says Louis Prado, who commutes 104 miles daily from the east Linda neighborhood of Edgewater in a V-8-powered pickup truck to his job as an office manager in Rancho Cordova. Gracie Prado commutes 98 miles daily in a recently bought Saturn to a nursing job in Sacramento.
Michael Roberts, too, never expected these gasoline prices when he and his wife moved from Sacramento to Olivehurst's Plumas Lake two years ago.
"I figured $4 a gallon is as far as it could ever go," he said, standing in the driveway of his single-story house.
Roberts drives 76 miles a day to and from his job as an electrician at Union Pacific Railroad in Roseville. His wife drives 100 miles daily to Rancho Cordova and back.
The housing downturn has hit communities all around the region hard. But as commuters like the Robertses and the Prados suffer individually at the gas pumps in Yuba County, real estate experts are looking beyond mortgage and credit issues and are now starting to ask larger questions about the impact of expensive oil on such far-flung neighborhoods whose futures were tied to a metropolis many miles away:
Could they become a suburban equivalent of ghost towns? Will they languish for years while awaiting local job growth, more fuel-efficient cars and a vibrant mass transit system? Is this the end of that kind of residential growth?
The questions take on new significance even as the housing downturn has weakened Sacramento's closer suburban commuter neighborhoods like Elk Grove, Lincoln and Rancho Cordova. On the other hand, older neighborhoods near job centers downtown have largely held their values.
As distant commuter neighborhoods across the state face similar sharp downturns Ã¢â‚¬â€œ the Inland Empire of Southern California and the I-5 corridor of San Joaquin County, to cite two prominent examples Ã¢â‚¬â€œ answers vary about oil's potential to make such places decidedly unattractive to homebuyers.
But already there is concern along Highway 70 into Yuba County.
Commuting factor changes
For two decades a single economic assumption has steered plans for 20,000 home lots in the Plumas Lake and Edgewater communities: an affordable commute to Sacramento, Placer County and even to Bay Area cities.
It was magic when gasoline sold for well under $2 a gallon, as it did in 2002 when the housing boom started taking off. By late 2003, as home prices began to soar, more than 2,500 new houses were sold in Yuba County. In all more than 4,000 were sold between 2002 and 2007.
Today, the state Department of Finance says Yuba County has 71,929 residents, up nearly 7,000 since January 2004.
Homebuyers found quick rewards: a new house that at first cost $100,000 less than in Sacramento County and $170,000 less than in Placer County Ã¢â‚¬â€œ with a bigger yard. But as demand has grown, the gap has narrowed. The median price for a new Sacramento County home today is just $30,000 higher than in Yuba County.
One reason for the long commutes is Yuba County's job picture. April unemployment reached 11 percent, according to state figures. Beyond Beale Air Force Base, agriculture and the public sector, there are few major employers.
Yuba County Planning Director Wendy Hartman says the county is working to grow the job base.
"Our goal is to bring a jobs-housing balance to Yuba County so folks won't have to worry about commuting into Sacramento, Placer County or the Bay Area for jobs," she says.
But that will take time. With the housing downturn and high gas prices, lack of buyer interest is obvious in parts of Edgewater and Plumas Lake.
In both neighborhoods, some model home complexes stand empty inside undeveloped subdivisions. Many finished homes have signs in front windows advertising them as available. Thousands of lots, readied for development during the housing boom with sidewalks, streets, utility lines and street signs, have become fields of weeds.
At the current sales pace, real estate experts say, it will take 13 years to develop and sell all the new homes planned in Yuba County and its neighbor, Sutter County.
"That is horrifying. That's like seeing a mouse under the table," says Dean Wehrli, a Sacramento-based home-building industry consultant, addressing a home-builders meeting last week. "My take is that marketplace is going to be hurting for a while."
Last week, the California Building Industry reported that the combined Yuba-Sutter County metropolitan area suffered California's most dramatic drop Ã¢â‚¬â€œ 88 percent from a year ago Ã¢â‚¬â€œ in residential building permits.
Gracie Prado confesses that she'd like to move back to Elk Grove, closer to work. So apparently do many others.
"A neighbor said if she had known then what she knows now (about gas prices), she might have bought in Sacramento," says Kathy O'Donnell, who retired to Plumas Lake about the same time the Prados moved to Edgewater.
Home prices decline
Residents are also seeing their home values drop steeply. A plague of mortgage defaults and foreclosures has pushed median sales prices for new homes down 21.5 percent in the past year, according to La Jolla-based DataQuick Information Systems.
One well-known national analyst predicts that such suburban developments, far from jobs and dependent on cars, will never see a rebound in value or sales activity.
"The bottom line is the suburban project is over for America. We're done," said James Howard Kunstler, author of "The Long Emergency," a 2005 book about oil shortages. Kunstler said places like Plumas Lake are creations of cheap oil and can survive only on that premise.
"They're going down, and they aren't coming back," said Kunstler, on the phone from New York, where he lives.
Mike McKeever, executive director of the Sacramento Council of Governments, is less sure about the future. But McKeever, who heads a regional agency that advocates housing near jobs and transit, calls faraway commuter living an "increasingly difficult development pattern to view as sustainable and economically viable."
"We try to encourage our local governments on the edge of the region Ã¢â‚¬â€œ that could be Yuba County, it could be Winters, Placerville or Galt Ã¢â‚¬â€œ to try really hard to have their growth driven by economic development and jobs, and then bring the houses in to supply the shelter," he said.
Home-building industry consultant Greg Paquin concedes places like Plumas Lake and Edgewater may see fewer sales as a result of higher oil prices. But they won't "fall completely off the map," he says.
Paquin, president of the Folsom-based Gregory Group, says some commuters are likely to buy in Plumas Lake when home building in Sacramento's Natomas area is halted for up to two years. Builders face a moratorium there soon until levees are strengthened.
He also foresees more telecommuting and Internet-based work "that makes it feasible to live out there (Yuba County) and drive three days a week."
Area retains appeal
It's easy to see why people wanted to move to the area. Home lots are usually bigger, and it takes almost no time to drive into the country. Some Plumas Lake homes back up to orchards, and many in Edgewater have views of the Sierra foothills.
Edgewater resident Paul Archuleta believes it will take more than $4 gasoline to halt the commuters. He left the Sacramento "rat race" eight months ago to buy a new Highway 70 home for $210,000.
"If it comes to $5 a gallon, it's not going to matter to anybody," he says.
But Archuleta is different from many: He just started a job with a Yuba County heating and air conditioning firm, escaping his daily commute to Sacramento. He says he is talking now with his wife, who commutes daily to Sacramento, about selling her Jeep and buying a hybrid.
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