When I moved to Desert Hot Springs a decade ago, I had no idea what I was getting myself into.
I didn’t know a thing about the desert city when I moved here from Cleveland in 2005. However, I was soon filled in by others: DHS has a lot of crime. Meth houses. Trashy people. Corrupt government.
In the decade since, things haven’t gotten any better. In early July, a website called Roadsnacks.net published a piece, “using science,” that declared Desert Hot Springs is the worst place to live in California. It made the rounds on Facebook; the piece supposedly had received 358,600 views as of our press time.
It’s no wonder Slipping Into Darkness, the wildly popular Desert Hot Springs band, included a song titled “DHS Blues” on the album Shurpedelic.
OK, look: DHS isn’t perfect. It has its problems, for sure. But my city of not quite 30,000 people is not the worst place to live in California.
As one would predict, the article was not popular with many members of the Desert Hot Springs Neighborhood Group on Facebook. Several people challenged the article’s legitimacy, pointing out that the city government is improving, and mentioning no small number of new businesses that are popping up. However, some people in the group agreed with the article’s conclusions, claiming that DHS boosters were ignoring the realities facing our not-so-beloved desert city.
I reached out to DHS City Councilman Russell Betts, figuring that he might be able to offer some counter-arguments to the Roadsnacks article.
“The two people who run that website, they do one of those lists on every state,” Betts said. “They’re click-whores. They’re just doing that to build traffic. How can they possibly analyze all 50 states?”
The Roadsnacks article claimed the findings were based on population density, unemployment rates, adjusted median income, the housing-vacancy rate, education, long commute times, high crime and weather.
“For those who live there, consider these facts: The crime rate in DHS is almost the highest in California, per capita,” the article said. “Nearly one in four homes is vacant. And residents earn a paltry 32 grand a year. Which goes nowhere on a California budget. Plus, summers are miserable.”
Betts does not agree with these sentiments.
“We are about 10 minutes away from all the nightlife of Palm Springs,” he pointed out. “We’re close to all the attractions within the Coachella Valley. It’s a little quieter here, and we have cooler temperatures. The housing values are really good, so you can get a really nice house out here for a lower price. If you don’t want to be bothered with all the traffic and congestion down on the valley floor, we’re the best place to be.”
He’s right: The housing prices in DHS are definitely reasonable, and there are some beautiful parts of Desert Hot Springs.
But what about the crippling budget deficit the city faced not too long ago? DHS made national news when the town’s coffers were pushed toward insolvency.
Turns out there’s no crisis anymore.
“The biggest problem was the budget, but we got that fixed,” Betts said. “It was no small feat to get our finances stabilized. From there, we can start to build on everything else we need to take care of.”
OK, so the city government is improving. What about crime?
It is definitely a problem in DHS. In 2007, a rock, and then fireworks, were thrown through the window of the house I share with my roommate—at 3 a.m. The rock and fireworks set off our fire and burglar alarms, and the Desert Hot Springs police and fire department immediately showed up. The officers mentioned it was most likely a random act of vandalism.
“You’re not in Cleveland anymore,” I thought.
Residents who belong to the Desert Hot Springs Neighborhood Group regularly complain that their cars and homes have been broken into. Then there’s the violence: Five people were murdered in the first four months of this year. In fact, a number of residents showed up at a City Council meeting in April to voice frustrations with the criminal activity.
However, help may be on the way: While the Desert Hot Springs Police Department was racked by cuts during the budget crisis, Betts said the city is now looking to add more police officers.
“We’re trying to fill the last of seven positions,” he said. “When you get a (budget) crisis like we did, you can find yourself in a lot of jeopardy. The crime is going to be solved with getting more officers on the streets. The seven police officers are budgeted, and we have the money. The police we have are doing a great job; we just need more of them. We really need to knock down this criminal activity.”
So help may be on the way regarding crime. But what about homelessness? The city has a large, visible homeless population, and members of the Desert Hot Springs Neighborhood Group often kvetch that no one is addressing the issue. Yes, the valley has fine facilities like Martha’s Village and Kitchen, and Roy’s Desert Resource Center, but many homeless people aren’t ready, able or willing to adapt to the structured environment and the rules at these places.
As a result, DHS has some well-known homeless people. “Joseph” is known to pile rocks in patterns on various properties and has been photographed throwing objects at passing cars on Palm Drive, for example.
However, one of the things I love about DHS is that the people here care. Residents have proposed raising money to purchase vacant buildings to turn them into shelters. There are many who wish to take control of the situation.
If Desert Hot Springs is the worst place to live, it must have a terrible business climate. Right?
Just the opposite.
The restaurants of Desert Hot Springs have a lot to offer. The Capri, Thai Palms, South of the Border, Casa Blanca and Kam Lun are all notable places to eat in Desert Hot Springs, and they’re often busy.
Then there are the spa offerings in Desert Hot Springs: There are plenty of them, and the area’s waters are world-famous. Two Bunch Palms is one of the best known spa resorts in the United States and has been mentioned in films, television shows and national media.
New businesses have been opening their doors in abundance. Desert Rocks Indoor Climbing Gym, an indoor climbing facility, just opened. Other businesses that have opened within the past year include the TOP Shop, Pho Na 92 and Desert Market. Another market called Rio Ranch is being built right next to the K-Mart, and Walmart is taking an interest in Desert Hot Springs. Two medical-marijuana dispensaries are now open and bringing added revenue to the city.
Paula Terifaj, the owner of the DogSpa Resort and a member of the Desert Hot Springs Planning Commission, believes in the city’s business possibilities.
“I don’t see our city through rose-colored glasses,” Terifaj said. “I see it’s been very challenged for several reasons. We’ve been dealing with ills that have been brewing for decades. But since I’ve gotten involved, I’ve noticed we’re under new guidance. In my opinion, what we’re doing is clawing our way out of a financial disaster created by a former administration, and I’m going to call it a ‘city in transition.’”
Terifaj said she recognizes the efforts the city has been making to attract new businesses.
“The city used to be really tough on new business, but the new City Council recognized that,” she said. “They looked at the cost of business licenses and everything else. The city wants to be more business-friendly, and they’ve even talked about offering incentives for new businesses. The city has recognized that the city needs businesses; the city wants businesses, and has to attract businesses. They’re really trying to make that easier at the city level, and it’s been talked about quite a bit.”
Terifaj mentioned that the city is looking at promoting culture, too.
“One of the things the city has talked about is forming an arts district and looking at where to have an arts district,” she said. “It went through the City Council, and it went in front of the Planning Commission. It came to us and during our last meeting; most of the meeting was spent talking about the arts district. People from the public got involved in that conversation, and it was amazing.”
At the center of these efforts is Richard Teisan, a real estate agent who lives in Desert Hot Springs and is the executive director of the new Community One Foundation.
“We are going to build artist residences, so artists can come in and live in Desert Hot Springs and do their work,” Teisan said. “(We plan) 4,000-square-foot facilities where an artist can show his work, and live in the back or live above it. These are all kinds of artists—writers, musicians, sculptors—and we have furniture-makers from Honduras. These guys are so crafty, and they build this beautiful furniture. They want to come in and be artists and develop art pieces.”
Regarding home values, Teisan explained why Desert Hot Springs is desirable.
“The first thing that I tell people is that when you look at prices per square foot, the price per square foot is (one of) the lowest that you can see in the state,” he said. “The second value I always talk about is there have been waves of contractors coming through building various quality of houses. The last wave to come through built much higher-quality homes than (in) the years before that.”
There are a lot of vacant lots in DHS. Teisan sees these as an opportunity.
“The value of vacant lots has dropped drastically, so that you can buy a lot in Desert Hot Springs to build a house on for $8,000 to $15,000,” he said. “You can’t do that any place else in the state, unless you go up into the wilderness. In this place, there’s land that has water, power, gas and sewer, and you can still buy the land for under $10,000 for a quarter-acre.”
It’s true: When you look at real estate listings for Desert Hot Springs, you’ll find nice homes, in safe areas, for far less than comparable homes in neighboring Palm Springs.
So, back to the original question: Is Desert Hot Springs truly the worst place to live in California?
Heck no, it’s not. While Desert Hot Springs has its problems, the city is packed with potential, especially with people flocking from Los Angeles and finding Riverside and Redlands to be too expensive; eventually, the reasonable real estate prices here will attract them. The city is addressing issues such as crime, and is working on attracting businesses.
People who know me will vouch for the fact that I’m not much of an optimist. So believe me when I tell you that I see Desert Hot Springs as a decent place to live, that’s filled with people who care about their city, being led by a city government that’s working to solve problems.
Below: Pho Na 92 is one of the many businesses that have recently opened in DHS. Photo by Brian Blueskye.