Two decades ago, the small community of Desert Hot Springs had the highest level of property, violent, and total crime per capita of any city in the Coachella Valley. But by last year, according to a new report from the Coachella Valley Economic Partnership, those statistics had almost completely reversed.
As of 2021, Desert Hot Springs had the lowest level of property and total crime per capita and the third lowest rate of violent crime.
The new report shows that the community is also one of three valley cities that has fully restored employment post-pandemic. Not only did Desert Hot Springs recover all lost jobs, but it also added new ones.
For Desert Hot Springs Mayor Scott Matas, the positive numbers speak for themselves.
“Pick almost any city in the Coachella Valley, and you’ll find some problems there,” he said this week. “But we’ve done a lot of work over the last 20 years, not just to fix our image but to actually turn things around.”
Some new crime-reduction tactics from the city, Matas said, have involved upgrading City Hall, bringing back the police department, building a new state-of-the-art dispatch, and utilizing community policing.
“We’re not perfect, but those crime numbers show there’s a big impact thanks to how we police, at the outreach we do [with] our residents, churches, and other organizations,” he said.
Leading in jobs, home sales
Part of the drastic decrease in crime could also be attributed to a steep rise in homeownership and employment. That job growth could be credited to the hospitality and cannabis industries, Matas said. There are more than 60 cannabis facilities in the city, including 12 storefront retail properties and 14 cultivation locations.
“The cannabis industry produced just over 2,700 jobs, and 36% of those jobs belong to Desert Hot Springs residents,” he said.
In addition to jobs, the industry also brought in $5.2 million in retail and cultivation taxes in 2021 and $5.3 million at the end of fiscal year 2022.
“$5.3 million in tax revenue is a lot when you have a $21 million budget,” Matas said. “You can see how that really affects your community’s needs.”
But convincing businesses to move to Desert Hot Springs is still an uphill battle, the mayor added.
“We’re not going to put our head in the sand,” he said. “We know that image has been a problem for entrepreneurs and corporate retail.”
Matas partly chalks up a certain unflattering image to the 1990s, when state laws made it easier for parolees to move to the city. One 2007 newspaper article described Desert Hot Springs as the valley’s “No. 1 parolee destination.”
In 2009, city officials said that the parolees were “lured” to the city by low rents and an understaffed police force. At the time, the city was 5% of the valley’s total population but had 65% of the valley’s parolees.
“That all turned the city into not so great a place to live,” Matas said, adding that subsequent changes in parolee travel rules meant “things have slowly been getting better.”
It’s worth noting that, according to federal data, there is no meaningful difference in violent crime between states that have banned parole and states that have not banned parole.
Retail, home sales growth
Despite positive strides forward in other areas, retail sales remained a low point for Desert Hot Springs in the new economic report. The city had the lowest retail sales growth rate in the valley at about 17%, the second lowest retail sales value at $178 million, and the lowest retail sales per capita at $5,500.
The report noted that the stark contrast in retail sales per capita could be explained by other cities simply having more retail businesses.
Matas hopes the recent hiring of Desert Hot Springs’ economic development director, Sean Smith, will spur more growth.
“We need somebody local like Sean who’s going to be an advocate for our entrepreneurs,” Matas said. “He’s going to tell these companies what they’re missing out on.”
Recent reports from the California Desert Association of Realtors show Desert Hot Springs is one of a few Coachella Valley cities where home sales and prices are rising, even with the recent interest rate increases. Still, the prices remain among the most affordable in the valley.
Matas said those low prices factor into making Desert Hot Springs desirable to home buyers priced out of other cities.
“Regular people who have been priced out of the market — single parents or families with a lower income — can afford to buy a house in Desert Hot Springs,” he said.
Matas still sees major things he wants to change about the city. He’s focused on raising the education rate and the city’s median income. Desert Hot Springs has the lowest median income in the valley at $42,000.
“If we can bring in just a few more economic development opportunities for entrepreneurs, it’s going to snowball,” he said. “We need people who believe in Desert Hot Springs.”
Matas is accustomed to hearing from those who don’t believe in the city’s potential, but tries to keep his focus on the positive.
“Of course, we have our supporters,” he said. “But we’ve been bullied by so much of the Coachella Valley for so long. Everyone laughed and made fun of us. To this day, we’re still trying to convince people that we’ve changed.”
But if investors and entrepreneurs get the chance to see the city in person, Matas said, they’ll see what he has long seen.
“It’s so clear when you actually drive through the city. You can see the opportunity,” he said. “It’s just about getting people here and showing them the benefits of investing in our city.”