John and Donna Pringle were newly widowed when they fell in love and decided to slip into retirement together at a sprawling community being built for the 55-and-up crowd a few miles from their homes in this sun-bleached Southern California town.
The Peppertree subdivision promised an expansive swimming pool where visiting grandchildren could splash and swim, a gym stocked with exercise equipment and hundreds of similarly aged neighbors.
But when Peppertree's builder abandoned the project months after the Pringles moved in, the pool disappeared behind a locked iron gate, the exercise machines were repossessed and the 13 existing residents were left alone to grow testy with each other in their cramped corner of the 85-acre development, looking out at empty, overgrown lots stacked with abandoned metal pipes and roof tiles.
Brown-plumed roadrunners dash over the arid dirt, sometimes with mice in their beaks, and tumbleweeds blow across the wasteland of the development onto residents' lawns.
In Peppertree's earth-tone stucco homes beside a cluster of boulder-studded hills, the recession and the collapse of the Southern California housing industry have crashed head-on into another fragile tenet of the American dream.
"We really feel cheated out of our retirement," said Donna Pringle, 72, as she and her 81-year-old husband sat outside on their porch. Theirs is one of only seven occupied homes in the planned 470-unit subdivision. "We've worked all our lives toward this and it's not what we were promised."
A few dozen additional homes are built but can't be occupied until Peppertree is connected to the regional sewage grid _ something developer William Lo left undone when he relinquished the subdivision in mid-2008 and filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy protection.
"It just doesn't feel right," said another resident, John Reider, 65, a retired auto lot manager, as he walked along a buckling road pocked with sinkholes, the apparent result of a faulty drainage system. "It bums me out."
Delores Conway, director of the Casden Forecast at the University of Southern California Lusk Center for Real Estate, said Peppertree's residents likely have years to wait before construction resumes, even after the sewers are fixed.
Once banks are more willing to offer construction loans again, she said, builders will first focus on areas closer to the region's employment centers than Hemet, located some 75 miles southeast of Los Angeles.
The quiet location near their previous homes was a selling point for the Pringles when they made a down payment on their $400,000 home in February of 2007, four months before their wedding.
They moved into the three-bedroom, two-story house with a walk-in elevator in September and, over the next few months, watched neighbors trickle in while crews applied stucco and laid down roof tiles on other new homes.
The couple frequented the subdivision's palatial clubhouse, working out on the gym's stationary bikes and treadmills and, when summer came, relaxing beside the pool.
Then things started to change.
The bustling sales staff that operated out of the clubhouse's soaring atrium dwindled to three members, then to just one, then to none at all.
Letters arrived in residents' mailboxes announcing liens on their property for allegedly unpaid construction bills. A worker parked by the subdivision's entrance with "Buyers beware: Builder does not pay contractors" painted on his truck. Repo crews arrived at the clubhouse and left with exercise equipment, furniture and flat-panel TVs.
In May 2008, residents received a letter from Lo explaining that PCG-Peppertree LP, a subsidiary of his development company Pacific Century Homes Inc., couldn't afford to complete or maintain the project and would let Central Pacific Bank take it over.
A few months after Lo's departure, a resident spoke with the driver of a tanker truck and learned he was making weekly visits to Peppertree to empty a septic tank. That's how they learned their homes were not linked to the region's sewage system.
Karl Roland, an Eastern Municipal Water District administrator, said his agency refused to connect Peppertree to the regional grid in 2007 because of shoddy plumbing work, but allowed the city to issue up to 10 certificates of occupancy while the pipes were repaired.
But Lo walked away from the project before that work was completed, leaving most of the homes unmarketable. Water district officials are waiting for the project's insurers to release funds for the repairs, Roland said.
Lawyers for Lo and Central Pacific Bank did not return phone messages.
Residents said their shared adversity has not drawn them together. Tensions have run high since late summer, when a plan to use homeowners' dues to restore the swimming pool fell apart.
Reider said the trouble was getting city inspectors to sign off on the plan, but that others blamed him.
"Ever since then it's been a little bit tense around here," he said.
Reider said his neighbors think he didn't want to spend dues on the pool because he's given up on Peppertree, and he concedes that when the sewer is repaired and the liens cleared he'll sell his home _ even at a significant loss _ and leave the stalled subdivision behind.
The Pringles, however, said that they couldn't afford to sell at a loss and hope to see their hoped-for neighborhood rise around them while they're still able to enjoy it.
"When you're younger, you can kind of sit back and think, 'In 10 years, I'm going to have this or I'm going to have that,'" Donna Pringle said. "We hope we have another 10 years left, but we don't know."