Kimi Lee bought her first home, a 900-square-foot fixer-upper in Highland Park for $158,000 in 2001, just before her neighborhood became the hip new affordable area. Four years later, she’s amazed at her good fortune and perfect timing as homes in her community now fetch $500,000, pricing many of her friends out. And then there are the newest home buyers – often making incredible sacrifices for their piece of the American dream. Kirsten O’Brien drives six hours a day from her new house in Yucca Valley to her teaching job in Watts. With rents and prices out of her reach in the L.A. Basin, the single mom decided the stability of homeownership was worth the long commute. High home prices – coupled with overcrowding, traffic, air pollution and long commutes from far-flung subdivisions – are taking the sheen off the Golden State. Even more worrisome, experts say, are what high prices and low affordability are doing to middle-class families and the widening gap between the haves and the have-nots. “Owning a home is closely tied to the American belief in social and economic opportunity,” said Mara Marks, a professor of urban studies and senior fellow at the Center for the Study of Los Angeles at Loyola Marymount University. “We’ve got this belief, this kind of social contract, that if you work hard and have big dreams you can have a piece of this American dream. As more and more people begin to sense that that dream is out of reach and not a reality for them, that’s a dangerous situation.” w=12 l=16Roots of the American Dream It wasn’t always this way. Suburban tract housing built after World War II and home loans offered through the GI bill made homeownership a reality for thousands upon thousands of returning veterans – many of whom moved from their native states, touching off Southern California’s explosive growth. For generations, owning a home has been the cornerstone of the American dream and a hallmark of a financially secure middle-class life. Even today, some 80 percent of Californians surveyed say they want a home of their own. Stay-at-home mom Julie Jacks grew up in Southern California; she expected to own a house and make her life here. She and many others have found the dream elusive. In a report last week by the California Association of Realtors, just 12 percent of Los Angeles County residents could afford the median-price home. The state is only slightly better at 14 percent. “All of our parents got married and bought a house, on one income. We’re educated people. We’re not bums. But here we are in Rosemead, renting,” said Jacks, 36. “Everybody strives to own their own home. It’s a sign of independence. I’m an adult. I’m educated. I deserve this.” Southern California home prices began hitting record highs in 2000 and have doubled since then. In August, the median price – the point between the most and least expensive – for a Southern California home hit $476,000. That’s a 132 percent increase from 2000, when you could buy a middle-of-the road home for about $205,000. Average wages and household incomes in California have risen less than 10 percent during that same period. Today, a potential home buyer would have to make around $110,000 to afford the median-price house – assuming traditional guidelines of 20 percent of the price as down payment and spending one-third of gross income on the mortgage, taxes and insurance. Though some neighborhoods, such as those south of the San Fernando Valley’s Ventura Boulevard, were always more expensive, they’re now seeing median prices at or near $1 million. But even communities once considered affordable are becoming less so. w=12 l=16Valley prices surge Across the rest of the Valley, once a haven for middle-income families, the home price tops $600,000. In the Inland Empire, peppered with middle-class cities, home prices have more than doubled since 2000. A household would have to make at least $80,000 a year to buy the median-price $344,000 home. That concerns Andy McCue, managing director of the Center for Sustainable Suburban Development at the University of California, Riverside, who believes home prices are undermining the middle class, which fueled the state’s prosperity from the 1950s through the 1980s. “We’ve priced the middle class out of new housing,” he said. “I would worry that we become like Manhattan where you have the very rich and the very poor with nothing in between.” That’s one of the dangers, said Marks with the Center for the Study of Los Angeles, in a region where so many people can’t afford the American dream. She worries that Southern California may ultimately see more class division and ethnic division. Already, the region is seeing the ripple effects: two and three families sharing a house, post-college-age children living with their parents, skilled workers leaving in search of cheaper housing. w=12 l=16Buying the American Dream in 2005 Despite high prices, homeownership rates are higher than they’ve been in decades, with 59 percent of Californians owning their own homes. Likewise, the rate of homeownership among those ages 30 to 34 rose from 38 percent in 2000 to 41 percent in 2003. And middle- and low-income people are getting into the market as well. Nearly half of recent California home buyers have household incomes of less than $60,000. Some in the real estate business say home-price sticker shock distracts from the reality: People buy based on the monthly payment, not the overall price. Low mortgage rates have helped keep monthly payments low in relation to the sale price and in line with what people would pay in rent, said Delores Conway, director of the Casden Forecast at University of Southern California’s Lusk Center for Real Estate. “Just to look at the sale price is misleading. Even though home prices are high, the actual cost to homeowners is not that much higher.” For example, a $350,000 home bought with 5 percent interest costs around $1,800 a month. Monthly payments on the same price home would have been $3,000 in 1990 when mortgage rates were 10 percent. Hans P. Johnson, a research fellow with the Public Policy Institute and author of a study of how Californians are “Affording the Unaffordable,” says there can be a risk to that. w=12 l=16Spending to the limit One in five new homeowners in the state spends more than half of gross income on a home loan. Half of new homeowners spend more than the federally recommended limit of 30 percent of their income on the mortgage. “If you’re willing to spend a lot on housing, if you’re willing to move inland, and use this flexible financing method, you can find a home.” Experts fear that these buyers may be creating a new class of homeowners vulnerable to losing their homes if they get laid off, have health problems or can’t meet the rising payments on an adjustable rate mortgage. Kirsten O’Brien shared that fear and instead stuck to her limited budget. But to do that, she spends most of her day away from home. The teaching intern found a $139,000, two-bedroom house that fit the small budget of a single mom in the desert city of Yucca Valley – 140 miles from her job in Watts. She drives six hours a day, leaving home at 4 a.m. and returning after 7:30 p.m. Her mom lives with the family and cares for O’Brien’s 5-year-old daughter and 12-year-old son during the day. Yes, it’s a sacrifice for the whole family. And O’Brien wishes she could spend more time with her children. But O’Brien was ready to put down roots, and after moving from rental to rental for the last few years, she believes the stability of homeownership is worth the long commute. “For once in my life, it feels safe,” O’Brien explained. “I know my payment. I know it can’t go up. The idea that my kids will be able to live here and not change schools until they graduate, it means so much to me, I can’t even explain.” Staff writers Don Jegler, Kelly Rayburn, Andrew Blazier, Jason Newell and Andrea Feathers contributed to this report. Kerry Cavanaugh, (818) 713-3746 [email protected] 160Want local news?Sign up for the Localist and stay informed Something went wrong. Please try again.subscribeCongratulations! You’re all set! Record-breaking home values have jeopardized the American dream for more and more Southern Californians who aspire to the security and stability of homeownership but find the prices and sacrifices too much to bear. The hot real estate market has generated unimaginable wealth for homeowners but has left others priced out of the market, feeling they’ll never get their piece of the dream. Five years ago, teachers Julie and Jeff Jacks were ready to start a family and buy a little house in Temple City for $200,000. But they decided to wait, fearful that they wouldn’t be able to make the mortgage if Julie got pregnant right away and quit her job. Then they watched as houses in their Rosemead neighborhood climbed from $200,000 to $300,000 to $400,000 and higher – frustrating the young parents and lifelong Southern Californians who now believe their future lies outside the region.