Housing downturn is a jolt to upscale Temecula
For almost 20 years, they've been painting the town red in Temecula.

Atop onion fields and grazing pastures, they've built a parade of 4,000- and 5,000-square-foot houses -- palaces, many of them, with turrets and faux backyard grottoes, with six-car garages and children's playrooms larger than the average Manhattan apartment.

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Today, they're painting the dirt green.

"Here's one now," code enforcement officer Jean Voshall said as she pulled her hulking pickup up to the curb in a gated community called The Fairways.

At first glance, the house looked like so many others in Temecula: five bedrooms, mushroom-colored stucco walls, a seven iron away from a dapper golf course where two men prepared to tee off. A closer look at the lawn, however, revealed that it was dead and crunchy -- and had been spray-painted green.

The paint came courtesy of neighbors, in the hope that it might be less evident to passersby that the house was empty -- foreclosed and left to the elements, with no running water, no electricity and little chance of new occupants any time soon.

It wasn't supposed to happen here. Not like this. The crashes are expected to hit hard in the Fontanas and the Perrises of the world -- cities marketed more to working-class buyers, first-time buyers or sub-prime buyers. Indeed, Temecula is by no means the hardest-hit area of the Inland Empire; many communities here have plunged into record levels of foreclosure.

Still, the downturn has been startling here because Temecula has been sold, successfully, as a sort of Napa of Southern California: a place of wineries and hot-air balloons and Mediterranean-style bluffs that trap the sea air, even this far inland.

From the start -- Temecula was incorporated in 1989 -- the city was protective of its image.

Residents are prohibited from working on their cars, in most cases, in front of their own houses. Stores that sell spray paint are required to keep it under lock, though graffiti is almost nonexistent. Behind City Hall, there is a "sign jail" full of political ads and business ads that were yanked because they violated Temecula's strict sign rules.

Based largely on that image, the population has nearly doubled again this decade, rising from about 57,000 in 2000 to 101,000 today -- 14 new residents a day.

Today, said Rich Johnston, Temecula's deputy director of building and safety and code enforcement, as many as 15% of Temecula's 22,500 single-family homes are bank-owned or in some stage of foreclosure.

Voshall said her supervisor asked city code enforcement officers to put together a master list of vacant houses. That was two months ago. She hasn't finished because of the sheer volume. She said she has 200 on her list -- her district covers about a quarter of the city -- but she is finished with just a fraction of the survey.

"We just have so many cases," Voshall said.

Inspectors have found squatters in some houses. Youths were recently caught growing pot behind one vacant house. Some owners have just dumped belongings in the yard on their way out -- "even silverware," Voshall said.

Reports of "green pools" -- swimming pools at abandoned homes, green with algae -- were up 45% in the first three months of 2008 compared to the previous year, officials said. Those pools "are almost guaranteed to breed mosquitoes," said Kelly Kersten, a county environmental health technician. He said West Nile virus is a concern.

At a home off Loma Linda Road, Kersten used an electric screwdriver to open the gate of an abandoned house. The backyard was enormous -- and apocalyptic looking, with weeds growing unfettered and a rusting swing set swaying in the breeze.

The pool was bright green, with a dead bird and other debris floating in the middle. Kersten dipped a cup in the muck, then peered into his sample. "Oh, yeah," he said. He retrieved pesticide from his truck, then began spraying it into the pool.

"Watch," he said. "The pool is going to start to percolate."