Higher Taxes, Fewer Services In Subprime Meltdown's Wake

Municipal ledger hounds are worried that local governments will slash services as the imploding housing market chokes off access to lucrative property tax revenue. The New York Times visited the future retirement destination of its readers, South Florida, to see firsthand the devastating affect the subprime meltdown can have on communities. For anyone who says “What housing crash, my community is fine,” hop across the jump for a look at your potential future.

While speculators may find it easy enough to pack up and move on, they are leaving behind an empire of vacant houses that will not be easily sold. More than 19,000 single-family homes and condos are now listed on the market in Lee County. Fewer than 500 sold in November, meaning that at the current rate it would take three years for the market to absorb all the houses.

“Confusion abounds because nobody knows where the bottom is,” says Gerard Marino, a commercial Realtor at the Re/Max Realty Group in Fort Myers.

Commercial builders are unloading properties at sharply reduced prices, sometimes even below construction costs, which further adds to the glut.

“It’s our goal to clear out the inventory,” James P. Dietz, the chief financial officer of WCI Communities, a Florida-based home builder, said in an interview two weeks ago. “We have to generate cash to make payroll.” Last week, Mr. Dietz announced he would leave WCI at the end of this year to pursue a career in the vacation resort business.

AT Pelican Preserve, a gated community set around a 27-hole golf course in Fort Myers, WCI has halted building, leaving some residents staring at mounds of earth where they expected to see manicured lawns. Half-built condos sit isolated in a patch of dirt, cut off from the road.

“It bugs the hell out of my wife,” says Paul Bliss, 61, whose three-bedroom town house is next to a half-built home site. “She looks out and sees that concrete slab.”

But the builder makes no apologies. “There was such a falloff in demand that it made no sense to build new units,” says Mr. Dietz, adding that the pause in construction “doesn’t in any way detract from the property.”

The hell it doesn’t. We paddle-boated over to a half-finished WCI development over Thanksgiving. It was a creepy Floridian version of I Am Legend. Everything was there—perimeter roads, basic plumbing—everything except the houses. Weed-filled plots stood idly next to lush golf courses fronted by occupied luxury homes.

The imploding housing market is currently hurting unprepared borrowers, but will soon impact everyone by blowing holes in municipal budgets, which derive a third of their revenue from property taxes.

…local officials counter that they are already being forced to contemplate significant changes that could affect everyday life. The county’s public safety division, which operates ambulance services, says it could be obliged to cut staff. The county’s Natural Resources Department recently delayed a $2.1 million project to filter polluted runoff spilling into the Lakes Regional Park — a former quarry turned into a waterway dotted by islands and frequented by native waterfowl.

People who were priced out of the earlier boom here could wind up the winners. “We had an affordable-housing crisis,” says Tammy Hall, a Lee County commissioner. “The people who were here for a fast buck are gone. You’re going to see normal people go back into that housing.”

Anti-government advocates are cheering the crash, arguing that governments “drunk on money” must accept their dole and reduce services. Municipalities are the secondary victim, the foreman who gets a paper cut handing over a jury’s death sentence. Local government collects garbage and library books, not rights and liberties. The subprime meltdown may present itself to the rest of us as a familiar but painful choice: higher taxes or fewer services.

This Is the Sound of a Bubble Bursting [NYT]