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Danville Express

Cover Story - December 12, 2008

A hunker-down Christmas

Recession forces folks to re-evaluate their holiday plans

by Meghan Neal

The holiday season is here once again. But for many families in the Danville area, the celebrations will be toned down this year. Some will have fewer presents under the tree, or perhaps forgo the six-hour drive to see the cousins. But others, who have lost their jobs or even their homes, face an especially difficult holiday season.

News of the current economic crisis is ubiquitous. Here in Danville and Alamo though, folks tend to be hush-hush about financial woes, leading some to falsely assume that the crisis has skipped right over the Diablo Valley.

"We think we're Teflon. We're not Teflon," said Patricia Briggs, a real estate appraiser with Einstein Appraisal Services in Danville. "Every month it gets worse and worse and worse, and people are suffering."

According to Robert Combs, a Danville Realtor and member of the Danville Planning Commission, there were just more than 200 cases in 2008, as of November, of Danville homeowners issued a notice of default for failing to make mortgage payments.

Approximately 43 of the 200-plus default cases resulted in foreclosure, according to HdL Coren & Cone, a company that does consulting and tracking for the Town of Danville.

That's about 20 percent. The other 80 percent either worked something out with the bank or was able to somehow liquidate the house on their own, estimated Town Manager Joe Calabrigo. Danville has about 15,500 housing units, said Calabrigo.

"I think it's fairly safe to assume that our (foreclosure) numbers are up, as they are everywhere," said Calabrigo, adding that defaults and foreclosures are lower in Danville than most other towns in the county. "Our numbers certainly are the lowest in the Tri-Valley," he said. In east Contra Costa County the numbers are in the thousands.

"It's kind of taboo here. They don't talk about it," Briggs said. "What happens here is people define foreclosure or bad mortgages with poverty, and it isn't about poverty anymore, it's about business sense."

It's not a question of how much money you make, it's a matter of how far you've leveraged your assets, using them as credits to allow for more spending, she explained. Many families had good jobs bringing in a healthy income, so they could afford a big house, nice car and get used to a certain lifestyle. But if one piece of the puzzle goes, the rest falls apart with it.

"It's not that they can't afford their lifestyle, but they can't afford to lose a job," said Briggs. "It's like the house of cards that slowly falls down."

One family she met had two children, ages 4 and 6. The mother was a mortgage broker and the father was president of a big company. Both were laid off. They found themselves stuck with a $2 million house and no income. They went through their savings while searching for employment, and ended up losing their home to foreclosure and moving in with the kids' grandmother.

"They lost their dream house, jobs and all their savings," said Briggs. "This was a very successful family that lost everything."

"Everybody is in this mess together, and it's terrible," she added.

On the other hand Danville does have its fair share of fiscal conservatives. Those that didn't extend their consumer debt further than they should have were better prepared to withstand the financial crisis, said Danville 2008 Mayor Candace Andersen.

"I'm finding a lot of families who have always lived conservatively. So they're not using their house as a piggybank," she said. "So though their 401K may not be what it used to, they're still making ends meet."

She advocates fiscal preparedness.

"I think living within one's means is a unique concept to many. Again, it's the old 'if you don't have the cash in the bank then don't buy it,'" she said. "Interest is something that should be earned, not paid."

But it's easy to get wrapped up in achieving a certain image or status. Many people in Danville and Alamo identify with their wealth, said Briggs.

"It's definitely about the look, and the house is part of the look," she said. "They always have to have one up on the Joneses."

With foreclosures rising, what your neighbor is doing can have an entirely different effect on families, by bringing down home values. Often the bank will sell foreclosed homes for far less than what they're worth. This drives down the values of nearby homes.

In Danville the housing market is still strong enough that most of the foreclosed homes are selling, said Andersen. You don't see abandoned houses and buildings lining the streets like in some other towns in the Bay Area.

According to DataQuick, a real estate information resource, as of October this year home sales in Danville have declined about 28 percent. Home values are down 4.3 percent. Alamo folks are a bit better off. The median home price, $1.3 million, is slightly higher than this time last year, and sales have actually increased.

"Danville is an attractive place to live because of our schools, parks and community," said Andersen. "People still want to move here." Those who are in a position to purchase a home are using the foreclosures and weak housing market as an opportunity to buy.

But for the hundreds of families who are losing their homes, it's not about numbers or percentages. Particularly for those without relatives or a support system nearby - where do they turn?

"If you don't have a place to live, even if you have a job, how do you do the basic things? You know, take a shower, get ready for work ... How do your children survive?" said Sandy Hathaway, community relations coordinator at the Bay Area Crisis Nursery.

The crisis nursery offers a safe place for children to stay whose parents have been foreclosed on. It doesn't provide housing for the adults but gives them the opportunity to focus on solving the problem without having to worry about the child's care.

Hathaway said she has seen people come to the nursery who never thought they'd find themselves in this kind of situation.

"Foreclosure doesn't really pay any attention to where you are," she said. "Just your ability to pay."

Ideally, a financially responsible person should have enough saved to live for several months even if they lose their job, said Andersen. But in today's job market, with widespread layoffs, it could take longer than that to find employment.

The unemployment rate in California is at 8.2 percent, up from 6.8 percent six months ago, according to U.S. Department of Labor statistics. Mervyns going out of business hit the area hard, and many large corporations - Yahoo! and Washington Mutual - are laying people off in droves. Retailers who count on sales from the holiday season are entering December with their hearts in their throats.

"It's unprecedented," said Andersen. "I am seeing more people be laid off than I've previously seen in any time. I think all of us know someone who's been laid off."

Attendance at the popular Job Connections program held by Danville's Community Presbyterian Church has nearly doubled over the past several months, said CPC pastor Scott Farmer.

"We've had to find more rooms, more space," he noted. "We've outgrown their rooms."

The program's membership of about 2,400 people act as an extended networking tool to help people find jobs and contacts.

"We're one of the largest and most reputable professional networking groups in Northern California," said Job Connections director Dean Tracy. "When you get down to the fine print, it's really about developing a sense of community where people can feel safe, where they can feel welcome, where they can feel supported."

About 100 to 200 people meet each week on Saturday mornings.

"When the mortgage meltdown started happening, obviously we had a lot of people coming from different banks," Tracy said. "Right now I would say it's across the board."

"One of the things I have said early on is it doesn't matter where you are in the corporate food chain when you've lost your job. When you come to our program, you're all making the same amount of money: zero or unemployment," he said.

Danville resident Shashi Dosaj is a member of the program and has been looking for a job for almost a year. She has a masters degree and has held senior level positions in the high tech industry. She said these days it's all about who you know. It's not as simple as sending out your resume and expecting a call back.

"Boy, it has changed," she said. "It's not easy trying to land a job anymore."

Unemployment is a very real problem, and it's affecting people living in Danville just as much as anywhere else, she said.

"They're living there because they could afford it, and they could afford it because they have good jobs. But when the layoffs come they don't look at where you're living," she said. "When layoffs come, layoffs come."

What really worries people is getting to the point where there are more people that need jobs than there are jobs available. When will we hit the bottom of this financial crisis? CPC and other resources around the community are offering people support through the difficult time. Farmer said the church encourages people to have hope that good things can come from this downturn.

"People are reassessing their priorities for what they're doing. Why they're alive. Why they have families. Why they're working. What their wealth is for," he said.

Danville Mayor Newell Arnerich noted at his recent installation that during tough economic times it's important to take care of your family and your neighbors, including shopping at stores in town.

Andersen, too, encourages everyone to support local businesses and come to downtown Danville to shop. But she noted that being forced to scale back spending and get back to the basics isn't necessarily a bad thing.

"Going for a walk can be just as fun as going to a theme park," she said.

She suggested giving a homemade Christmas gift this year - a poem or picture. That can be even more thoughtful than a big shiny toy.

"Certainly when we live in an affluent community there's a tendency to want to have what your neighbor has," Andersen said. "But I think people are recognizing that's not what makes you happy."

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