Florida's dire housing market hangs over primary

Floridians prepare to vote in Tuesday's Republican presidential primary amid increased uncertainty over the state's hard-hit housing market — an issue that has prompted plenty of campaign barbs and a dearth of proposed solutions.
Republican presidential candidate and former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney arrives for a campaign stop last in front of a foreclosed home in the hard-hit Florida community of Lehigh Acres. (Brian Snyder/Reuters)

Kimberly Askinazi only moved back to the western Florida community of Brandon a couple of weeks ago, but she's already working out a plan to buy a home for herself and her four-year-old daughter.

"I've saved," Askinazi, 24, told CBC News on Sunday outside a tobacco shop in a Brandon strip mall where she works as assistant manager, while she and co-worker Amanda Meck have a cigarette break.

Askinazi said she has $15,000 to make an initial rent-to-own payment directly to a friend of her mother's for her house in nearby Gibsonton, then will continue to pay her a mortgage "for a couple of years."

If successful, her home-buying plan will bypass real estate agents and mortgage brokers — as well as keep her mother's friend from joining the swelling ranks of Floridians who have lost their homes through foreclosure.

"The bank’s going to take her house unless she gives them money," Askinazi said. "But I'm going to live there."

The unorthodox arrangement shows the dire reality of Florida's housing market since the 2008 economic crisis, especially in communities like Brandon that form the corridor along Interstate 4 between Tampa and Orlando — a road heavily travelled by Republican presidential hopefuls ahead of Tuesday's primary.

Online housing listing guides show that property values in Brandon and surrounding areas mirror the 45 per cent state-wide drop since 2006. 

"Florida has just been devastated for the last four or five years," said Gary Mormino, a history professor and co-director of the Florida Studies program at South Florida University St. Petersburg.

Property owners, Mormino told CBC News, have been forced to master new terms like flipping, underwater mortgages and short sales, while witnessing the macabre spectacle of prospective buyers taking foreclosure boat and bus tours to evaluate properties.

Pointing fingers

The two leading Republican candidates, Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich, have criticized President Barack Obama's administration of prolonging the housing crisis through economic overregulation and misguided policies. Both candidates insist that the housing market will improve with a strengthened economy.

Republican presidential candidates Newt Gingrich and Mitt Romney traded accusations over their ties to government-backed housing lenders in Thursday's debate. (Matt Rourke/Associated Press)

But in the intensified battle of Florida's winner-take-all primary, Romney and Gingrich have spent as much time pointing the finger at each other over their respective ties to Fanny Mae and Freddy Mac — the government-backed housing lenders that most conservatives give a large share of the blame for the housing bubble for offering up credit to Americans too easily.

On Sunday, Romney reiterated his charge that Gingrich was profiting from a role at Freddy Mac at a time when the company "was not doing the right thing for the American people."

Gingrich, during last Thursday's debate, accused Romney of making massive profits from selling shares of Freddy Mac and Fanny Mae, as well still owning stock in Wall Street investment giant Goldman Sachs "which is today foreclosing on Floridians." 

Romney, who is leading in the latest state polls, appeared initially to take a hands-off approach to the housing crisis, after telling the Las Vegas Review Journal in October that the government should let the situation "run its course and hit the bottom."

Kimberly Askinazi, left, and Amanda Meck stand outside the tobacco shop where they work in Brandon, Fla. (Andrew Davidson/CBC)

He has since described the foreclosure stories he's heard in Florida and even harder-hit Nevada as "tragic." Romney also suggested he might support the government having a role in helping people facing losing their homes get back on their feet, and called for banks to show more "flexibility" in renegotiating with people "who have circumstances that would justify that renegotiation."

In his state of the union address last week, Obama said fixing the U.S. housing market remained a key priority for his administration, and promised to send a plan to Congress to help Americans refinance their mortgages and stay in their homes.

But many critics of the president's latest proposal have said it doesn't go far enough to curb the rising number of "underwater mortgages" — with homeowners owing more on their mortgages than their homes would be worth if they sold them.

But to Florida historian Mormino, it appears no one — including Obama — has any answers.

"I'm really struck at how impotent all the candidates are on this issue," he said. "They’re just hamstrung because there's no easy solution."

Boom, bust, recovery?

In the meantime, the lack of confidence in the state's housing market "lies at the very centre of Florida’s malaise right now,"  said Mormino, who coined the term "Ponzi State" to describe Florida's finances because of its dependence on thousands of fresh visitors to bring in revenues, all the while keeping Floridians' taxes low.

The state's population and real estate boom began in the late 1930s and continued virtually uninterrupted — with plenty of help from millions of Canadians — until the first signs of trouble with default levels on subprime mortgages. In 2009, Florida saw its population decline for the first time in 63 years.

And the current housing crisis is not just a Florida problem, according to Mormino, as baby-boomer retirees in other states such Michigan or Ohio can't relocate south — either because they can't sell their homes back home or they don't have confidence that prices in Florida have hit rock bottom yet.  

"Housing is everything about confidence," he said.

At a Gingrich rally Sunday in The Villages, an upscale development northwest of Orlando, Paul and Barbara Gilson told CBC News they were looking for a candidate who could get the economy and housing market going again, and that Barack Obama hasn't been up to the job.

The retired couple split their year between Florida and Michigan. Up north, Paul Gilson said, "everything has a for sale sign on it" — and nothing's being sold.

"You can't give property away up there," he said.

Florida's future

According to the latest census data, Florida's population growth has rebounded in the last two years since the 2009 decline. And with more of North America's baby boomers reaching retirement, Mormino said he believes their Florida dream will return.

Especially for Canadians, he added.

"What’s your alternative in January and February?" he said. 

But Mormino's also concerned over what he says is a lack of debate in Florida about the state's future, as politicians and business leaders here push for more deregulation and boosting enticements for tourists to get back to pre-2008 growth levels, instead of ridding Florida's Ponzi-esque dependence on fresh outsiders coming in.

"This would seem to me to be the best time to ask what kind of modern Florida we want; whether we want a tropical Coney Island, a tropical Disney World, or do we want better schools and maybe more high-tech jobs?" he said.

"But we're simply not having that dialogue right now."