Coffee heat rising

Financial goals, urban angst

Yesterday afternoon when I got home from work and climbed out of the car, I smelled burning rubber in the garage. Thinking something was wrong with the van–did I drive across two rain-soaked freeways with the handbrake on? is that fan belt flaring up again?–I looked the vehicle over but could find nothing wrong. Then I walked out to the curb to pick up the daily delivery of junk mail and smelled acrid fumes on the air. Lo, to the northwest a plume of black smoke was rising toward the clouds.

It looked like it was coming from the decrepit strip shopping center where Fry’s recently shut down a ghetto grocery store. Neighbors were glad to see that store close. It’s been a public nuisance for years, allowing (illegal) 2:00 a.m. trash pickups that sound like a wrecking yard in action, sheltering derelicts in the oleanders behind the parking lot, and charging inflated prices to the captive audience of low-income apartment dwellers along 19th Avenue who can’t afford a car or whose driver’s licenses have been suspended.

The fire appeared to be close to my friend Shari’s rental house, the place she’s been trying without luck (largely thanks to Fry’s) to sell for the past two years. I jumped on my bicycle and headed over there to check on her property.

Slipping past a fireman whose back was turned as he wrestled a hose onto a fire hydrant, I got onto the street that borders the run-down shopping center. A few houses up the road, one of the neighbors was standing in his carport watching the commotion, which was directly behind his home. I asked him what had happened.

He said that some idiot had tried to commit suicide–at least, that was his take on it. The guy had driven his vehicle up to one of the locked steel loading doors and floored the gas pedal, spinning the tires until he quite literally burned rubber. And then the car exploded! He said he was sure the perp had to be dead.

Charming. Explains the screams that could be heard from my front yard.

My friend’s house seemed to be OK; it backs onto the east side of the shopping center and the cremation occurred on the south side. But I personally am not OK with this. It’s another incident in a string of incidents and circumstances that say it’s time to get out of this area.

I’ve been undecided whether to stay in my house in retirement. It probably costs more than I’ll be able to afford on a reduced income (some months I barely make it on what I’m earning, a good $20,000 more than I’ll have in retirement). But I like the house a lot–I’ve put a ton of work into it, and the backyard is now very pleasant, full of fruit trees and flowering gardens. I love the wonderful swimming pool, my only real indulgence. I like living in a diverse neighborhood and I like being centrally located.

However, the truth is that the middle-class infrastructure has moved to Scottsdale, the East Valley, and the far Northwest Valley, following white flight and the money that fled with it. To buy clothing and upscale food, to go to doctors and talented hair stylists, to take the dog to a top-flight vet, even to shop at an ordinary department store, you have to drive halfway across the planet. The Costco a couple miles down the road is an entirely different store from the one seven or eight miles up the road at the 101 and Cave Creek, and the difference is not to the advantage of shoppers in our neighborhood. And the city is about to spend the next four years ripping up 19th Avenue for our insensate light rail project, an unsightly monstrosity that will bring us festoons of overhead wires, a curb up the middle of the road prohibiting left turns into the few surviving businesses, and traffic funneled through our residential streets as drivers dodge around the traffic jams.

How exactly the endlessly touted light rail is supposed to enhance property values escapes me: it’s no improvement over the bus, because it makes exactly the same stops and moves people at exactly the same milk-run speed, taking two hours to cover a commute I can drive in 30 minutes. It trashes the streetscape and is truly hideous. My guess is we’ll be lucky if our property values don’t drop even further once that thing is in. Certainly four years of chaotic, noisy, dirty construction won’t help values.

So, I guess it’s time to set a new financial goal: Find the money to move someplace quieter and safer by or upon retirement.

But how? Houses are selling here, but only if you set the price low and wait a long, long time. My house is paid off. At my age I’d be crazy to take on a new mortgage. What I can get for this place will not buy a comparable house, free and clear, in a better neighborhood.

And move where? I certainly can’t afford Scottsdale. I don’t at all care for the East Valley, I truly don’t want to live in Sun City, and the West Valley doesn’t turn me on any more than the eastside does. The relatively short commute I have now sets my teeth on edge, and the prospect of driving from Surprise or points west into Tempe fills me with horror. The downtown area suffers from the same issue as North Central: it’s surrounded by blight and devoid of middle-class infrastructure. All that “historic” (read “outrageously overpriced”) housing down there is even more decrepit than what I’m living in: holes in the ground into which to pour money. Newer downtown housing, mostly hard-edged concrete “lofts” that are really nothing other than mid-rise apartments, is priced in the out-of-the-question range.

To accomplish the goal of moving, I guess I need a set of strategies:

Within the next three years:

  • Pay off the Renovation Loan, or set aside an equivalent amount in cash holdings.
  • Find a desirable, affordable place to live.

Explore Prescott and Tucson.
Reconsider Sun City.
Revisit Fountain Hills.

  • Determine how much of a bath I can take on housing and still have enough in savings to live adequately in retirement.
  • Calculate the best timing for putting the house on the market.

Sell before light rail construction begins?
Wait until commuting is no longer an issue?
Rent it until the market improves?

  • Consider putting the house on the market now, since it may take two years to sell.

The conundrum at hand is another case where money issues and stress go hand in hand. To live within my means, I apparently must live in a neighborhood where I don’t feel safe. There has to be a way to resolve this!

Life in the big city

For the second time today the cop copter is buzzing the neighborhood. This morning it was over the fierce apartments to the west; now it’s racing back and forth above the two-block-long residential street to the north of me. For this mission it’s been up there almost an hour, and because it’s so close, my stereo can’t drown out the racket.

Cop flyovers are among the chronic stressors that go with living in this neighborhood. Every now and again, the airborne police will chase a fleeing perp into someone’s yard. A couple years ago, my ex- and his wife, who live about a mile and a half from my house, watched a teenaged boy jump the fence into their backyard with the cops and their copter in hot pursuit. When they caught up with the kid, they grabbed him and slammed him into the fence so hard it broke the gate. Another friend and her family moved into a house not far from here. On their first night in the home, they heard a helicopter parked overhead, its loudspeaker shouting. Unaware their street was a dead end, the perp had driven into the cul-de-sac, jumped out of his car (leaving it running, so that it climbed into a neighbor’s front lawn), leapt the fence, and was cornered in their backyard by police officers with their guns drawn. The children were terrorized, and you can bet the parents were less than thrilled themselves.

So this aerial presence is not soothing and not comforting. Sometimes I think I’d like to retire to a small town or enclave where the natives don’t feel under siege all the time. However, in Sun City not very long ago a couple and their house guests suffered a home invasion. Sun City is a place where most people leave their doors unlocked and feel confident in the knowledge that the sheriff will show within ten minutes of a call. The thugs grabbed the male guest, dragged him into a bedroom and shot him to death—just for the hell of it.

So. . . It may be better to be reminded regularly that you’re not safe, that you really should keep the doors and windows locked, and that an 80-pound dog with pearly whites to match has something to recommend it than it is to lull yourself into a false sense of security.

What does living in your city or town contribute your overall sense of angst, and how do you deal with it?