Correction to This Article
The article about recent enrollment growth in Prince William County schools misstated a description by the School Board chairman, Milton C. Johns, of the system's budget shortfall for the fiscal year that starts in July. He said that the shortfall is $45 million, not $45,000.
Prince William turns corner with boom in population and drop in housing prices

By Michael Alison Chandler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, May 12, 2010; B01

While Fannie W. Fitzgerald Elementary School was under construction in 2007, the newly appointed principal, Deraine Simpson, worried as she drove to the Dale City campus past a sea of FOR SALE signs in foreclosure-wracked subdivisions.

"I thought, 'Oh, my goodness, this beautiful new school, and everyone is leaving,' " Simpson said. "Fortunately, those signs came down quickly."

Less than three years later, Fitzgerald Elementary has exceeded its 850-student capacity, and students are enrolling nearly every week. Simpson is adding kindergarten and first-grade classes next year. And Prince William school officials are considering portable classrooms and new attendance boundaries for the hilly neighborhoods east of Interstate 95.

The county's newest elementary school is feeling the impact of a population boom that is reenergizing neighborhoods abandoned by distressed homeowners. A wave of young families is breathing life into cul-de-sacs and suburban courts that were among the region's hardest hit by the real estate collapse.

New buyers are drawn to Prince William for its age-old allure: affordable housing. Because of depressed prices, along with lower interest rates and a tax credit for first-time homebuyers, many are getting better deals than ever.

Parents started pouring into the office at Fitzgerald almost as soon as it opened in fall 2008 to register their children, some bringing closing documents showing townhouse prices as low as $179,000. The victors of the crash included custodians and taxi drivers, security guards and single parents. They rented and waited until they could afford a 2,200-square-feet home with 2 1/2 baths and a back yard and near a good school.

Investors also swooped in after the crash, prompting bidding wars in many places. Some families were priced out; others secured deals on homes abandoned through foreclosure or short sales, as well as on brand-new homes at discount prices.

Prince William, the state's second-largest school system, had planned for an additional 1,100 students this year after growth slowed last year; it ended up with 3,000, bumping enrollment to nearly 77,000. The 4 percent increase was on par with growth rates during the years before the crash, when assessments and tax revenue climbed.

The enrollment surge took planners by surprise and stretched resources during the toughest budget cycle since the Great Depression.

"These were students we had not budgeted for," said School Board Chairman Milton C. Johns (At Large). With an average per-pupil cost of $10,700, accounting for the extra enrollment-related costs made up a large part of the school district's $45 million budget shortfall for the fiscal year that starts in July, he said.

But as abandoned homes are bought, the market is beginning to stabilize, and property values are beginning to rise, said Jason Grant, a spokesman for Prince William. That's good for the county's overall health.

Road to recovery

A few hundred feet away from Fitzgerald, buyers invested in homes under construction near Bronco Way and Broker Lane in 2004 and 2005, when the market was defined by frenzied development and freewheeling lending practices.

The Brightwood Forest subdivision was a victim of bad timing, said Brad McKuhen of the homeowners association. Many buyers who signed contracts in 2005 found that by the time their homes were completed a year later, the value was plummeting.

The average home price in McKuhen's section of Brightwood Forest dropped from a high of $408,645 in 2005 to a low of $205,945 last year, according to a review of real estate records by the Center for Regional Analysis at George Mason University.

By 2007, some of the cul-de-sacs appeared deserted, as many buyers walked away from upside-down mortgages. Weeds grew tall, and real estate agents' lock boxes appeared on door handles.

Brightwood Forest has made a comeback, with 70 sales in the neighborhood of about 145 homes since 2007, the analysis found.

Home sales are up countywide, said Wes Stearns, president of the board of directors for the Prince William Association of Realtors. There are about 800 homes on the market, down from 8,000 two years ago, he said.

"We had a mass exodus," he said. But the homes left behind were quickly snatched up.

Bouncing back

On a recent afternoon, azaleas and fresh mulch adorned gardens in Brightwood Forest. Tricycles and scooters were overturned on sidewalks, and two teen boys walked from house to house with a lawn mower and a weed whacker, looking for after-school work.

Kimberly Larowe was breaking up hard clay in her front yard to plant fresh bushes while her son played tag with the neighbors.

She and her husband, who were both in the military, rented a house in Falls Church for several years before the market collapsed, and they decided to buy last year. "We wanted a low price, and we didn't want to do a lot of work," she said. They found a three-bedroom townhouse for $215,000 and now pay less for their mortgage than they did for rent.

Richard Kissi, a security guard, was working on his car around the corner. He owned an older townhouse nearby in Woodbridge but saw the downturn as an opportunity to upgrade, he said. He found a four-bedroom for about half of the original selling price. "The house is pretty much new; so is the school," he said.

His four children enrolled at Fitzgerald Elementary, joining scores of other new and returning Prince William residents.

The Benavides family returned to the county last summer after spending more than a year in Houston. They lost their Dale City townhouse two years ago, after their monthly mortgage ballooned from $1,000 to $3,000 and Jose Benavides could no longer find work as a carpenter.

They found their kids' Houston schools and their neighborhood to be unsafe. Back in Dale City, they are renting a townhouse for $1,300 a month and looking for steady work.

Many immigrants left Prince William after thousands of construction jobs disappeared and county supervisors cracked down on illegal immigration in 2007. The number of students learning English as a foreign language in county schools dipped last year but is up this year.

In Brightwood Forest, the new faces are a relief to Teresa Perkins, a housecleaner and mother of three who bought her home in 2004. After the neighborhood became a foreclosure hot spot, her family considered leaving.

"I thought we would have a lot of empty homes that would remain empty," she said. "I'm encouraged by how much things have improved in a relatively short time," she said.

With a new elementary school open next door and plans to move thousands of military jobs to nearby bases, she said, the neighborhood will only become more desirable. "I think most of us are optimistic again," she said.

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