As Cassie and I were walking home from an early evening stroll last night, a neighbor stopped me to report that a stray pit bull has been running loose in the neighborhood for the past week or so, and that he had just seen it go into my yard. The animal was gone by the time he and I talked, but it was a mildly disturbing exchange.
Dog fighting—which mostly involves “pit bull” type animals of indeterminate breed related to the Staffordshire terrier—has become a serious problem in Arizona. A common entertainment of toughs and hardened criminals, this lucrative gambling racket thrives on breeding aggressive dogs and abusing them to the point where they are truly dangerous. The problem is not so much in the dogs as in their sociopathic owners. Pit bulls have found favor among street gangs, who use them to protect their drug operations and intimidate citizens as well as in organized dog fighting. In fact, the pit bull has become emblematic of the Bloods, a widespread violent street gang. The interest in pit bulls among celebrity thugs like football star Michael Vick and rapper DMX does not help matters.
The dog shelter where I rescued Cassie was, like most shelters in Arizona, overrun with pit bull-type dogs. It is located in an area infested by gangs, and so the predominance of pit bulls there is not surprising. What is surprising is that I managed to retrieve her before she was “adopted” to be used as bait in training vicious fighting animals, a common practice among dog-fighting breeders and trainers.
The Centers for Disease Control caused quite a flap a few years ago when it released a report saying pit bulls are responsible for about a third of U.S. dog-bite deaths. Groups advocating bans on specific breeds succeeded in getting legislation passed in several states and cities. In fact, though, the CDC did not say the problem lies solely with pit-bull type dogs but that—given enough provocation—any breed will bite, and the study explicitly said the group does not support breed-specific controls. During the study’s period, Rottweilers were the most commonly reported breed in fatal dog attacks. Together, pit bulls and Rottweilers are responsible for more than half the fatalities from dog bites in the U.S.
The sociopaths who breed pit bulls for dog fights use savagely brutal “training” techniques, and they will shoot dogs that lose or back down during a fight. The result, of course, is a dangerously mean-tempered animal, and over time, a breed that has been selected for aggression and viciousness. Anyone who thinks such an animal is not potentially dangerous is fooling himself. Fighting dogs that are not killed are often simply abandoned after a lifetime of horrendous abuse that inclines them to attack anything that comes their way—there’s a chance that’s how our visitor got here.
So, I wasn’t pleased. A street pit bull, which will not back down when confronted by a human and is usually impervious to pepper spray and blows from a well-aimed kick or stick, poses far more risk to Cassie than do our urban coyotes, which are fairly easy for an adult human to scare off.
And more to the personal finance point: I wasn’t pleased because this is yet another indicator of the encroaching slums.
Though my immediate neighborhood and the district just to the south and east are nice enough, these centrally located enclaves are surrounded by blight. One of the reasons that for years I felt a nagging sense that I should move someplace else is that when I worked on the West campus, I had to drive home and into the neighborhood from the north. Coming in from the north and the west takes you through miles of working-class neighborhoods and downright slums, which get crummier and more menacing as you approach our neighborhood. The northern fringe of our neighborhood has been dragged down by the noise and crime from a seedy shopping center, now mostly vacant after its anchor, a Fry’s grocery store, finally closed. The departure of the Fry’s, however, did nothing to help improve that area, mostly because as the real estate market deflated there was no way for the home values to go up. Values in that section of the neighborhood were already depressed, and as they have fallen further, a worse element has moved in and the properties’ deterioration has accelerated.
Driving in from the south and the east, as I’ve been doing since I started working on the Tempe campus, carries me through the middle-class and high-income neighborhoods that line north Central Avenue. These are pleasant areas, and so one tends to forget that everything to the west and the north is a dangerous slum. Out of sight, out of mind.
You can’t keep it out of mind forever, though, when the denizens’ rejected pit bulls are wandering through your front yard and when your neighborhood is under siege from burglars and home invaders.
My problem with moving, besides the fact that my property values are as depressed as anyone else’s, is that I happen to like living in the city’s central core. I don’t want to move out to the suburbs. I dislike Tempe, Mesa, and Chandler and don’t want to live there, and I have exactly zero desire to move to the only affordable middle-class venue I can find, which is Sun City. Except for my specific six-square-block neighborhood, which because of its status as a buffer zone between the rich folks and the gang-ridden slums to the west has always been underpriced relative to similar houses a block or two to the east or south, there is no other desirable part of the central city where I can afford to live. A one-bedroom apartment closer to the center of the city costs more than my four-bedroom house on a quarter of an acre with a pool.
Last night I crawled the online real estate listings and found three short sales or foreclosures over in the “good” part of my area. One potentially attractive house that was completely gutted many months ago is still on the market—the bank is asking $175,000 and entertaining any offer. My guess is the fix-up job will require about $100,000. You’d still end up with a nice house for about $100,000 less than the (former) value of surrounding properties. But it’s not livable—no kitchen, no bathrooms, no flooring, no nothin’—and so you’d have to live somewhere else for the several months required to rebuild the place.
Another house, about as far north as mine but only a block from swanky Central Avenue, is on the market for $230,000. It’s a short sale. This, too, is priced well below the value of neighboring homes, but it’s on the upper end of my price range.
The backyard is nowhere near as nice as mine, and heaven only knows what’s inside.
Deep in the heart of North Central—must be just one or two houses in from the coveted tree-lined boulevard—is this little gem:
It appears to have a nice kitchen. Two fireplaces, one of them in the master bedroom. What look like real wood beams in the family room. They want $289,900 for this, as is. In that part of town, they’re practically giving it away.
But that’s still way more than I can afford. I’d be surprised if I could get $230,000 for my house today, and that’s before I fork over Realtor’s fees and closing costs. The truth is, I can’t sell my house for enough to get into any better area that is not on the far-flung fringes of the Valley or in Sun City.