Notes from ground zero of the housing crisis

  • Article by: SCOTT GILLESPIE
  • Updated: October 7, 2008 - 3:37 PM
FORT MYERS, FLA. – Foreclosure bus tours are popular with visitors to south Florida these days. Here at ground zero of a housing mess that’s wreaking havoc with the U.S. economy, whole neighborhoods of vacant homes await bargain hunters.

 

Just east of Fort Myers, the weekend tours wind through Lehigh Acres, a once-fast-growing city of about 70,000 that’s been hard hit by the housing meltdown. It’s easy to reserve a tee time at the local Copperhead Golf Club, where fairways are lined with vacant houses and undeveloped lots. "You can get a house that sold for $700,000 three years ago in the $200,000s today,’’ the starter told a group of hackers from the Midwest last week.

Fort Myers is the spring home of the Minnesota Twins, and so many Minnesotans visit or live here for at least part of the year that some have called it ‘‘Edina by the sea.’’ It may still feel like paradise on nearby Sanibel and Captiva islands and in the upper-income gated and waterfront enclaves near Fort Myers, but a short drive or a foreclosure bus tour reveals what was left behind when the housing bubble burst.

Florida is in play for the Democratic presidential ticket, and the economy is clearly the reason. Housing is depressed and crime and unemployment are up. Sarah Palin drew enthusiastic crowds in the area Monday, but many of Florida’s Joe Six-Packs, as she might call them, are worried.

The McCain campaign recently told the New York Times that the Wall Street downturn is hurting its candidate in Florida because of the severity of the housing crisis. And the Obama campaign sees blood in the Gulf, outspending McCain in TV advertising 5-1 in recent weeks.

In south Florida today, even the most informal conversations quickly turn to the economy and the housing free-fall. Moody’s Economy.com lists the state as already being in a recession, and some areas feel like ghost towns. There were a staggering 22,000 foreclosure filings in Lee County, where Fort Myers is located, in 2007-2008, compared with 1,600 in 2005-2006.

Some blame the problems on predatory mortgage companies that peddled variable-rate mortgages to unsophisticated buyers. Surely some of the foreclosed properties were second homes that out-of-staters stretched too far to finance, betting wrongly that real estate values would continue to climb. Personal responsibility is a factor too seldom cited in discussions of how we got here in the first place.

Demographics strongly suggest that south Florida will rebound. The weather, water and natural beauty of the area — not to mention Spring Training — will always draw tourists and northerners searching for retirement bliss. You just wonder whether the area has hit bottom yet, and when the recovery will begin. And you ponder what all of this will mean Nov. 4.

There were few signs of a rebound at Copperhead Golf Course last week. "Come back Sunday,’’ an employee said as he helped the Midwesterners pack up their clubs. "We’re really hurting on Sunday.’’

Scott Gillespie is editor of the Star Tribune’s editorial pages.

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