STOCKTON, Calif.—Janeen Milhorn and her husband bought their four-bedroom ranch-style house on a quiet street in this California suburb in 2004. It was on one of the farthest lots in the development, which Milhorn liked because it meant she had more land, and because it looked out onto a hay field.
But before long, developers snapped up that hay field, part of the real estate boom fueling speculation and building all over former farmland in parts of California and the West. In 2006, they started building, platting the land and paving roads. They erected street lights and electrical cables and installed street signs with rock star names like Jagger Lane and Hendrix Drive.
Then the recession hit, and building stopped. The streets and the sidewalks were still there, as were the lots, with red and black electrical wires sticking out of the ground. But only a few houses had been completed. None were anywhere near the Milhorn's house. Out of one window, the Milhorns could see the manicured lawns and bright gardens of their neighbors in the completed development. Out of the other, they saw a bleak field with street signs and lamp posts, but no houses.
That field soon began to look like a garbage dump. There were overgrown weeds, beer bottles, shopping carts. Discarded children's toys and car seats and plastic bags. People from all over town would come to get rid of their old mattresses or party at night. Coyotes and skunks found the open space appealing too. Sometimes, Milhorn would come home from working a night shift and find a skunk sitting in her yard.