Struggling El Centro, Calif. (pop. 41,672), is an epicenter of the recession, but fighting foreclosures is at the top of Mayor Ben Solomon's agenda.
Unemployment in your area has hit 30 percent and foreclosures jumped more than 200 percent last year. How did you respond to the setback?
I made brochures and spent a lot of time going door to door and handing them out to people. I told them to contact me personally if they needed help saving their home. I've given out about 7,000 brochures and received e-mail from more than 700 people. I feel strongly about this because everybody in a community gets hurt when people can't stay in their homes.
What kind of assistance do you provide?
A lot of people are scared and embarrassed that this is happening to them. What I offer is support. I tell them about workshops or direct them to the local fair housing organization. We've even been able to host a workshop with lenders like Citibank and Bank of America. They've come out even though we're in a pretty remote area. By the end of the year, I'm hoping we'll have helped at least 100 families. But it's not been easy; the eligibility requirements for loan modifications are too strict.
The drop in home prices-close to 50 percent since 2007-has created more affordable housing opportunities as well, right?
Yes, we have many first-time buyers here and we want to set up additional assistance to help them through the buying process. At least a third of our sales are distressed properties. We also want to offer more paperwork about homeownership and home buying in Spanish. About two-thirds of our population is native Spanish speakers.
You've been featured in Parade Magazine and on CNN and CNBC for your efforts. Has the media coverage helped or hurt?
It has opened people's eyes here in the Imperial Valley. Other elected officials and the chambers of commerce have gotten more involved. It's not just me anymore. The helpful effect exceeded my expectations.
El Centro is located in remote desert country, 11 miles from the Mexican border. Housing construction has pretty much halted and the agricultural sector is hurting. What gives you optimism about your community's prospects?
We're in a very good position because growth industries like geothermal and solar power are coming to us because of our flat land and inexpensive water supply. Seven companies have already opened here, though our local population is not yet skilled enough for positions there. These companies will distribute energy to millions of people who live a three- to five-hour drive from here. In addition, two major malls have opened in the past two years, and they're doing well. They have no empty storefronts. And that's because 1 million people live 12 miles away in Mexico. Wealthy Mexican consumers are coming over to shop here. We have a lot of hurdles to cross, but our future looks bright.