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Published: Sunday, 2/28/2010

Poster town for the foreclosure crisis

ASSOCIATED PRESS

STOCKTON, Calif. - Since the housing crisis began, this inland port city 80 miles east of San Francisco has had one of the worst foreclosure rates in the country - and for most of the time, has had the worst rate.

At the height of it, about one in 10 houses fell to foreclosure. Houses that sold for more than $500,000 before the crash now go for $200,000. In some neighborhoods, fixer-uppers cost less than $20,000.

Entire neighborhoods have been devastated by the mortgage disaster. The tax base has shrunk. City services and municipal jobs have been cut. Unemployment hovers around 16 percent. Economists predict it will take years for Stockton to recover from the housing bust.

Housing developments built for commuters were hit the hardest because they were the ones that attracted newcomers fleeing the huge spike in prices closer to the Bay area.

Those whose livelihoods depend on a healthy housing environment - real estate brokers, contractors, day laborers - are barely holding on.

Probably the happiest people are the ones scooping up foreclosures. Speculators are back, but the other bargain hunters include people who only dreamed of being able to afford a house.

Weston Ranch, the subdivision that had more bank repossessions than any other place in the country for much of the last two years is starting to look like its old self.

The "For Sale" signs are mostly gone, and the lawns where weeds grew like corn stalks are shorn.

Every time a foreclosure hits the market, bargain hunters snap it up. Speculators are buying houses to rent out. On streets where everyone knew everyone, no one knows anyone.

Rudy Willey, a real estate broker who knows his turf, is working twice as hard and making half as much as he did two years ago. In two months, he has taken just two days off. At 58, nearing the age he had hoped to retire, he is selling houses for less than half of what they sold for in 2007. Even so, it is harder to close a deal.

He is taking a multimedia course at San Joaquin Delta College, a two-year school where he also teaches real estate classes. He hopes to start a Web site.

At night, he works on a book, a guide for would-be home buyers.

Each day, he tries to look on the bright side. On an afternoon's outing to see houses below $35,000, he kept remarking on the "wonderful opportunities" for working people to own a home.

"Not bad, not bad," he said, going through an $18,000 house that had decent bones. It was in a homely neighborhood of aging bungalows. But there were no drug dealers on the corners. "Redone," Mr. Willey said, "this could be a nice little home."



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