On weekends in the city of Maricopa, signs of the housing crisis come to life.
Sign spinners line Arizona 347, the main road in and out of this foreclosure mecca, pointing the way to bank repos, cheap homes and "final opportunities."
Open houses can be found every few blocks. So can families facing foreclosure. Investors and Canadian buyers, lured by low home prices, flock to Pinal County's newest city about 35 miles south of downtown Phoenix and 80 miles from Tucson.
Once a sleepy farming town with a few hundred people in the middle of nowhere, Maricopa is now an exurb of about 40,000 people in the middle of nowhere. Surrounded by reservation land and desert scrub, it is an island of homes in an ocean of desert.
Set between Tucson and Phoenix, Pinal County has long been thought of as the place where the two cities would merge, the center of Arizona's coming "Sun Corridor."
When housing was hot, rows and rows of rooftops went up in places like Maricopa and unincorporated Queen Creek. But little else followed. No jobs or new roads. Little retail. Few services. Just homes.
These days, in the long shadow of the bust, Pinal County is ground zero of the housing crisis. While it still might represent Arizona's future, linking Tucson and Phoenix as one massive region, it now embodies the state's present-day challenges.
How Pinal recovers from the great recession - if it ever recovers - will play a huge role in how Arizona grows and whether the two metro areas merge.
For Pinal's leaders, recovery starts with more growth. It's growth that will improve the roads, attract the stores and expand services, they say. Growth may have fueled Pinal's boom and bust, but it is the key to its future.
The present, though, is marked by distress. Like much of Pinal, foreclosures are king in Maricopa. Distressed homes made up 80 percent of sales there at the end of last year - and that's an improvement from when things were really bad. The median sales price has fallen from $260,000 in 2006 to about $110,000.
Pretty much everyone in Maricopa has a housing story, and it's usually a sad one.
"There's an identical model next door selling for half the value that I paid for this house," said Marvin Brown, a Maricopa city councilman who bought in Pulte Homes' Cactus at Senita subdivision for $325,000.
"Half the value. That's painful. That's like Mike Tyson hitting you in the jaw in his best days."
At a different time, maybe in a different place, the price Brown paid would have seemed reasonable.
His home is spacious and airy with a big, shimmering pool in the backyard. But literally down the street, Pulte was advertising models starting at $70,000 - smaller, yes, but not great news for his home's value.
Scenes like this have been playing out all over the country and the state, and in pockets in and around Tucson. Marana and Sahuarita, for example, are pocked by foreclosures, stalled projects and big homes in the middle of nowhere that people paid way too much for.
But what's striking about Pinal County is the sheer volume of the housing crisis. It's not just one neighborhood, one street, one failed subdivision; it's entire failed communities.
At its worst, Pinal is a lunar landscape of unfinished developments where streets dead-end at dirt, playgrounds were built for neighborhoods that don't exist and vacant model homes idle in the dust.
"This is totally uncharted territory. Probably the closest you could come to it is the Depression," said Jay Q. Butler, a real estate professor at Arizona State University.
As Butler sees it, there's no way to gauge what's going to happen in Pinal because the county faces so many challenges. Arizona has gone through many real estate cycles, but never one so severe, not in communities that need so much. The downturn has been just as bad in Maricopa County, and pretty tough in Tucson, but at least those places have jobs and services.
Because jobs are scarce in Pinal County - there are only about 50,000 non-farm jobs there - residents battle slogging commutes to Phoenix on roads that turn into parking lots at rush hour. There is little to do and few places to buy stuff. Peak home values may never return, and Pinal's leaders have no clear vision for recovery other than more cheap houses and sunshine.
"A lot of communities in Pinal County don't have the basic fundamentals in place," Butler said. "Water is a key issue. They have to get an economic base. … They have to put in more streets, and in today's world that's very expensive and there's not a lot of money available."
The very name, Sun Corridor, conjures up an image like Silicon Valley, one of high-tech jobs and a high-velocity economy. It's a moniker Pinal officials have embraced wholeheartedly - even as foreclosures have ravaged the county.
"We like to think it's the epicenter of the Sun Corridor," said Ken Buchanan, Pinal's assistant county manager for development services. "It's not been the growth, it's been the rate of growth that's been the challenge. It's keeping up with all the houses that were built during the growth spurt."
In some ways it's hard to argue with Buchanan about the certainty of the Sun Corridor. After all, Pinal County's population nearly doubled in the last decade to about 340,000, and more than 530,000 unbuilt housing units have been approved there - enough to serve 1.3 million more people.
Communities in northern Pinal, such as Maricopa and unincorporated Queen Creek, built up seemingly overnight during the run-up - fueled by unregulated growth and subprime loans - as new residents commuted to the Phoenix metro area for work.
"We didn't have impact fees at the time, so it was very cost-effective to build and sell," said Pinal County Supervisor Bryan Martyn. "All of the ingredients were there for hypergrowth."
Maricopa boomed as a commuter town for Phoenix. Officials there like to say it's 25 minutes from Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport - and that's sort of true if the road out of town is clear and it's not rush hour.
But now that growth has slowed, Maricopa has pinned its future on the proposed, and somewhat forgotten, Interstate 11 that would connect Phoenix to Las Vegas. The proposed route would go right by Maricopa and would attract the same type of development that has popped up alongside new freeways in the Phoenix area, Maricopa Mayor Anthony Smith said.
Among Interstate 11's most enthusiastic cheerleaders is developer Michael Ingram, who built Maricopa and still owns a lot of land there. (See related story, Page A15). He also owns land along the proposed route, including a massive 37,000-acre spread in Buckeye for the proposed Douglas Ranch development.
A freeway would draw master-planned communities, which would draw businesses, which would draw universities, he said.
"People think I am interested in building a road to Vegas," he said. "We need that infrastructure for trade."
While Ingram makes Interstate 11 sound like a done deal, Pinal County Supervisor Pete Rios said there is neither the political will nor the money to make it happen. "It's a pipe dream that some people are still talking about," he said. "It is dead in the water."
Whatever the outcome, this kind of vision of more homes and more sprawl troubles many experts, who question whether people will continue to move to Arizona as they once did.
They doubt Pinal can create jobs in all those master-planned communities.
"Arizona was always sort of built on the economic model of cheap land, cheap houses and sunshine. So the reassuring argument is we are back to having cheap houses, and the sunshine never went away," said Grady Gammage Jr., a zoning lawyer and senior fellow at ASU's Morrison Institute for Public Policy.
But "by having no dominant industry other than cheap houses and sunshine, we're highly at risk in a changed economy and changed world."
Until that changes, ASU's Butler said, Pinal - and Arizona - will continue to boom, bust and boom again.
"The argument is we won't do this again," Butler said. "But we always do."
The growth machine
Pinal officials are clearly aware of the need to attract jobs. They've hired an economic-development director and made it a priority in the county's comprehensive plan. County and city leaders talk about developing jobs and retail there.
But in the end, the conversation always comes back to growth: If the city of Maricopa can grow a little bit more, get a hospital and attract jobs and retail, maybe even a movie theater and a bowling alley will follow.
"We have that great advantage of sunshine here, and it's really a very, very attractive environmental thing," said Smith, Maricopa's mayor. "Maricopa still has about 100 to 200 new people moving in each month."
"We are still growing," county official Buchanan said. "We are the fastest-growing county in the state and third-fastest in the country."
The latest U.S. census figures will determine if that's still true.
A sad irony, of course, is that while growth might represent a bright future for Pinal, it does nothing to help the struggling residents there now: the people who bought into the bright future in the first place and have been marooned in the suburban desert.
"We bought here because it was a place that was affordable. We couldn't afford anything in Gilbert or Chandler or anywhere close to work," said Jon Cox, who lived in unincorporated Queen Creek for five years. "And we liked it out here at the time. It was new."
Cox made those comments in March when foreclosure was looming large. He lost his home in May, and has since put Pinal in his rearview mirror, moving his family to Gilbert, where he rents.
"For losing the house," he said, "I feel like I am a number."
And in Pinal County, the heart of Arizona's housing crisis, that's just what he was.
About the series
Explosive growth played a major role in Pinal County's boom and bust. Even more growth, Pinal leaders say, is the only way out.
Rethinking the Sun Corridor: Will Pinal County be the place where the Tucson and Phoenix metro areas eventually meet?
Who made out in Pinal County real estate - and who got stung?
Canadians: Buying up cheap retirement homes, particularly when the Canadian dollar was strong.
First-time buyers: Priced out during the boom, the downturn has offered affordable prices and, for a while, a federal tax credit.
Mike Ingram: He created the first development in Maricopa and watched as it took off.
Bert Lopez: Tucson's apartment magnate just scored a distressed apartment building in Casa Grande for 50 cents on the dollar.
Fry's: The grocery chain dominates Pinal's fastest-growing markets, Queen Creek and city of Maricopa, with little competition on the horizon.
Peak buyers: Either they are sticking with their homes and overvalued loans, or walking away and ruining their credit.
Tucson: Pinal County's growth, and developing connection to Phoenix, only weakens its clout at the state level.
Pinal County: Has had to slash its budget by millions and is facing tough challenges to build jobs and improve roads and infrastructure.
Hunt Highway: The poor, mostly two-lane thoroughfare in unincorporated Queen Creek is over-stressed with commuters, and there's no money to pay for the nearly $130 million in needed improvements.
About the writer
Josh Brodesky has been a reporter with the Arizona Daily Star since 2006, most recently covering real estate. He was recently a 2010 Kiplinger Fellow at Ohio State University in the John Glenn School of Public Affairs. He holds a master's degree in journalism from the University of Missouri and grew up in Tucson.
Contact reporter Josh Brodesky at email@example.com