Togetherness: The Foreclosure Silver Lining

by Marc Sanchez

Las Vegas is a relative newcomer as far as U.S. cities go. The desert heat was habitable, but just barely. So it wasn't until the 1940s, when air-conditioned casinos started springing up, that people began making the city a tourist destination. And all those big casinos needed people to work in them, so there you go: instant city. Nobody really came to Las Vegas to stay, though. Most people didn't want to settle down in Sin City. So the strip and its surrounding burbs became a place for people to live and never know each other - drifting in and drifting out like a warm, desert breeze.

As of February 2009, 1 out of every 60 houses in Nevada was in foreclosure. That's the highest foreclosure rate in the country. Map any neighborhood in Las Vegas, and you come up with a Swiss cheese pattern of vacant houses. The Las Vegas Sun has an entire section of its website called "Real Estate in Crisis." And hard luck stories are everywhere. But, something unique is happening for the citizens of Las Vegas who haven't lost their homes. These people are actually discovering each other. They're getting to know and care about their neighborhoods.

This warm, fuzzy feeling may come from necessity at first. Janie Lopez is a foreclosure counselor at Neighborhood Works, an affordable housing and home ownership non-profit organization. Lopez says she has seen "more neighborhood watch groups sprouting up, which is causing neighbors to talk to each other. [People] don't want their home values to drop more, so they're more prone to knock on a neighbor's door to see if a person is still living there."

By banding together people are gaining a sense of pride in their communities. During the housing boom, people were always building newer, bigger homes. There was no need to know your neighbor because chances are, you'd be packing up in a couple years for something new. Now people are staying put, and when you make the decision to stay in one place, that place becomes more important.

The Las Vegas Neighborhood Association dispatches neighborhood planners to communities to help bring people together. The group has always tried to foster community growth. During the boom years, this idea was a tough sell, but now people are seeking their assistance. Neighborhood planner Lisa Campbell says, "Maybe if they moved a few years ago, they thought they could flip out of it. They're realizing now that they have to make their neighborhood work for them." She mentions one upscale community in a northwestern suburb of the city where almost all of the houses have been foreclosed on. A year ago, the community was a virtual ghost town. Only 6 of 30 homes were occupied. The families turned to each other for support and security. They spent their time checking on the upkeep of yards and knocking on doors to see if anybody was home. Within a year, Campbell says, "the majority [of houses] have been sold. There are maybe about five or six houses that are still unoccupied."

It can be tough to see through the fog of doom that coats news reports about the foreclosure crisis. There's no denying the hard times we're in or the struggle the nation faces to dig itself out of this recession. Getting to know your neighbors and looking out for others fall right in line with other ideas floating around the collective consciousness these days: eating local, volunteering, recycling. All of these things connect people and communities. If Las Vegas is an indicator of what is to come out of this crisis, maybe community pride is a ray of sunshine that pierces through the clouds.

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