Ground Zero

[image] With the economy in such dire straights, one might wonder just how bad the areas hardest hit have become. The daily news reports of home foreclosures and statistics showing capital market crashes have an almost clinical feel about them, as if the doom befalling America is too large in scope to grasp on a personal level. Lost in charts and statistics are the real human tragedies. Subversify traveled to one such area, the ground zero of economic blithe: Lee County, Florida. For several months, Lee County led the nation in foreclosures. Averaging over twenty five hundred foreclosures a month, the pace had a staggering toll on the area. Lehigh Acres, a suburb in eastern Lee County took the hardest hit. Over one hundred square miles, the town was platted and had roads built in the risky business philosophy of “if you build it , they will come”. The corporation that did the original planning and phased developments would eventually collapse, leaving the remaining vast tracts of land a property speculators dream. And come they did, with interest rates low and credit readily available, just about everyone was buying a lot and building a house. Building had happened at such a fast rate in the last twenty years that building supplies became scarce, causing budget shortfalls in construction and hampering rebuilding efforts with hurricane Charley relief. The economy itself began circulating entirely around this land boom, with plenty of jobs to be had in construction, real estate and finance. A perfect storm was brewing, it was only a matter of time before everyone would see what wrath this market would cause.

The official entrance of Lehigh Acres has a large round sign declaring “Welcome to Lehigh”, proudly lit with spot lights and surrounded by palm trees to add a tropical flair. This sign was once the edge of the developed town, a pleasant gateway for residents and tourists to travel through. Since that time, the town has grown around it – the sign is now in the center of a much larger city. Behind the sign is one of the earlier developments, the Wedgewood community. In its hayday, Wedgewood was a premium middle class neighborhood. Children played in an open playground under the shadow of the Methodist Church, the town’s largest house of worship with an enormous steeple and grandiose campus. Dog walkers and elderly people paced the roads, greeting one another by their first names. The Wedgewood community of today is a vastly different place. The first home at the entrance of the community speaks worlds of what lies within the development. The lawn grass stands over a foot high, covering any hint of sprinklers and low growing ornamental plants. The boarded up windows show signs of sagging as the plywood planks bow outwards. The once white paint on the exterior cinderblock is peeling off in large chunks, which dangle in the breeze like tiny flags of surrender. Yellow stains dotted the home’s exterior, making the walls appear to have large gloomy eyes. Topping the look off are a pair of turkey vultures that perch over the front door awning. One can’t help but think this would be a more appropriate welcome sign for the town.After driving past the first home, one can’t help but notice that the community watch sign and the adjacent stop sign have the telltale spray-paint crown tags of the Latin Kings. A brutal street gang that has taken foot in suburbia. Many of the homes have tall grass and stacks of newspapers rotting in the driveways. Some have boarded up windows, and dogs meander unleashed, roaming about the neighborhood. Long gone are the populations of retirees, a demographic shift with the explosion of property has altered the landscape of this area of town. A huge Latin and Haitian influx have created a change in scenery. Some residents sit idly in from of their homes watching the world around them. There are no more jobs to go to. The construction has dried up, along with the lending and real estate. The best that many of these people could hope for was day labor jobs on construction sites. There is no other fall back industry for people to go to. The largest employer in town, Wal-Mart, has waiting lines every morning to submit resumes. Occasionally, a large diesel bus drives down the street at a walking pace. On the side of the bus is a sign declaring “Foreclosure Tours”. The bus doesn’t move fast in this neighborhood, there is too much inventory to cover.

One street on the other side of town tells a different story. Gunnery Road was once a strafing road used by Army Air Core planes as a practice ground for World War Two. Within the last twenty years, much of Lehigh has expanded into the once desolate area. In a town with no ordnances and no zoning controls, this land became the Wild West for real estate development. Large houses next to small ones, businesses next to condos, single family on top of multi-family, whomever had the capital and the will could build as they pleased. And build they did, miles and miles of mixed construction appeared in the blink of an eye. At the height of the mass building craze, the money ran out. The capital funding dried up and every construction project came to a standstill. Many of the construction sites now are overgrown with weeds, with half built frames and assorted construction materials laying about. One can frequently spot large groups of migrant workers in pickup trucks raiding the stacks of unused supplies. Several of the homes that were near complete are now nearly totally destroyed, vandals having their way with the windows and interior drywall. The Lee County Sheriffs office has also had to contend with a new type of crime; copper theft. The thief’s rip out the copper from plumbing and air conditioner units. While unoccupied units are the biggest targets, a greater number of thefts have been happing to occupied homes. A drive down Gunnery also demonstrates that one business is thriving: manufacturers of “for Sale” signs. Street after street has lines of for sale and foreclosure signs. During the height of the real estate boom, one local realtor had declared that he had sold the same home seven consecutive times without anyone ever stepping foot in the door. Now the market is saturated with inventory and no one has the money to make purchases.

Off Leeland Heights boulevard, a woman stands outside her house. She is being evicted, her personal items are being removed by people hired by the bank and placed on the front yard. A sheriff deputy remains parked in her driveway to make sure there are no altercations. Her items are being rummaged through by neighbors. Without a home and no money to purchase storage, she can’t do much more than watch as people take her possessions. It’s now a common site, so much so that caravans of people travel to separate evictions to exploit the evicted persons possessions. In lean times, the scavengers fatten themselves. The foreclosures in this area of town are typical of many across the country. Some were lured by the low interest rate on ARMs. Others began using equity loans like an ATM machine. Money was dirt cheap, and there was a long line of people to borrow.

At the Faith Lutheran Church, volunteers are assisting passing out free day-old bread to locals. The program had modest beginnings when there was a small, manageable crowd of needy people. The volunteers don’t attempt to qualify the people that show, they just give the food to anyone who shows up. However, the lines within the last few years have turned into crowds. The Church had to recruit more volunteers for crowd control, which at times has turned into an angry mob.

“ Only one loaf per person” a volunteer would shout from the back of the delivery truck.

“ But I’m picking up one for my neighbor” a distressed woman shouts.

An elderly woman forcibly removes the loaf from her hand and places it back on the stack of bread.

“We have to make sure everyone gets some, there is plenty to go around but we can’t allow hoarding”

President Obama had recently traveled to this area. Many of the locals had hoped he would see the town first hand, but plans were altered and he never did take a tour of Lehigh Acres. It is unclear if the President’s proposals will directly affect this area, but what is certain is that local and stave governance failed to stop the crisis. In particular, citizens of Lehigh have fought against incorporation, which would allow citizens greater authority over zoning and community planning. Speaking with one longtime retiree, it was stressed that many on fixed incomes don’t want to be further taxed. Others cast their eyes towards the state regulators for not paying greater attention to appraisers and mortgage originators, a symbiotic relationship that at time poses ethical challenges. The higher the value, the greater the loan, the better the commission. For a short time, no one could lose. But eventually, everyone did.

Smaller Mortgage companies in particular were left holding large swaths of improved properties. They couldn’t re-sell the mortgages, and the rental market had dried up. Those in the property management game were giving away rent for free as an introductory offer, trying to secure occupancy any way they can. Other companies have folded, and larger banks are now having the burden of selling off their inventory. The community golf resort, long a fixture of the town, was recently closed. The resort was bulldozed and the golf course is now an overgrown jungle. Many of the homes lining the fairway have been abandon or have fallen into disrepair.

The community at large is still struggling with how to deal with their situation. Crime is escalating, and despite the huge housing inventory, homelessness is continuing to increase. It is apparent however that the glory days of Lehigh as a prosperous suburbia are gone, the mirage of wealth vanished and in its place a massive debt laden community with no industry to support itself. Lehigh Acres appears to be a bleak manifestation of suburban decay, to which there may never be a happy ending.