Housing crisis turns South Dade suburbs into ghost towns


Article Courtesy of The Miami Herald


May 24, 2009


Antillean Isles, a new Homestead subdivision, promised homeowners a community of elegant estate homes with the ``alluring architecture of the tropics.''

But when Martha Samohano glances out the window of her four-bedroom house she doesn't see the tropics -- just dirt, gravel and weeds. After the housing bubble burst, developers packed up their bulldozers and fled, leaving a bleak, lifeless landscape, frozen the moment things went sour.

''Everything is empty around me,'' Samohano said. ``It's very depressing to live in an area where you only have weeds growing up.'' 

While the darkened downtown Miami condominium tower has become a symbol of the real estate bust, at least most builders stayed around to see their projects through to completion. Things are worse in the South Florida's most far-flung subdivisions.

Prices have plunged more than 53 percent over the past 12 months in Miami-Dade County's far south suburbs, including Homestead, Florida City and neighboring incorporated areas. In Miami's downtown and Brickell districts, considered ground zero for the bust, the drop has been more modest, about 30 percent.

For builders like Silvio Cardoso, it's a big headache. Like so many suburban developers, he flocked to the expansive, agricultural lands in South Dade hoping to create Miami's new bedroom communities when the housing boom stirred earlier this decade. He launched two projects around Homestead, Riviera Grand Estates and Santa Barbara of Homestead.

Today, said Cardoso, president of United Homes, ``It's basically impossible to sell anything.''

At the end of March, there were 65 percent more homes listed for sale in Miami-Dade's southern reaches than in the urban core, according to a study by real estate analyst Craig Werley.

And nearly nine out of every 10 sales in Homestead are distressed -- either banks selling foreclosed properties at rock-bottom prices or short sales, in which the lender allows the home to be sold for less than is owed on the mortgage. For South Florida as a whole, the number is 60 percent.

To some housing experts, the numbers indicate a shift.

''We are seeing the limits of sprawl,'' said real estate analyst Michael Cannon.


Like much of the rest of the country after World War II, growth in South Florida followed a model of housing subdivisions, malls, and office parks -- built separately and connected only by cars fueled by cheap gas. As each new and ever more distant development sprouted, city centers emptied.

But by the 1990s, exhaustion from long commutes and clogged roads, complaints about a lack of a sense of place, and worries about strained resources prompted calls for ''smart growth'' and mixed-use developments with work, school, and homes in close proximity.

''New Urbanists'' pushed for a return to traditional neighborhood development that was both walkable and connected by public transport.

Even though South Florida home buyers are still able to buy more house for their money in the remote suburbs, some are taking a pass.

Last year Brian Lee, 34, lived in a three-bedroom townhome with a yard in Homestead's Malibu Bay subdivision.

''The time, tolls, gas, parking and incredibly hectic traffic, it was too much,'' said Lee, an analyst at the U.S. attorney's office in downtown Miami.

Now he and his wife live in a loft apartment downtown. He has a 10-minute walk to work, instead of two and half hours in the car. 

''I can't tell you how many couples I've told, `You can buy a brand new four-bedroom, two-bath house in Homestead for less than $100,000,''' said Ronald Shuffield, president of Esslinger Wooten Maxwell, a South Florida brokerage. 'They say, `Well, we just don't want to be that far from the center of activity.' ''

Tract-home builders scoff at the notion that there is a clear shift in what home buyers want. Lennar, the giant home builder that launched several subdivisions in South Miami-Dade, is leading an effort to open up the county's far western flank -- an area currently off-limits to large-scale development -- so it can build a new, almost 7,000-home suburb called Parkland. Though even that proposed development attempts to distinguish itself from South Dade's bedroom communities by including a smattering of offices, parks and shops.


U.S. Housing and Urban Development Secretary Shaun Donovan told Congress in March that remote suburban homes may cost less but aren't necessarily more affordable when transportation costs are taken into account.

The ''recent downturn has shown that auto-dependent houses are more vulnerable to price devaluation, as homes in distant neighborhoods declined in value more than regional averages,'' Donovan said.

In Broward, where low-density suburbia has sprawled across almost the entire county, at the end of March the biggest inventories of unsold homes listed for sale, according to analyst Werley, were in the northern reaches, including Coconut Creek and Deerfield Beach -- farther from the county's major city, Fort Lauderdale.

In Miami's distant southern suburbs, the downward spiral is illustrated in countless half-built communities and new subdivisions with so few people they appear lifeless.

''It looks like a cemetery there,'' said Sergio Pino, a suburban developer who chose not to build in the Homestead area, concluding it was too far away -- though he is part of Lennar's controversial effort to put a suburb on Miami-Dade's western fringe.

In the Homestead subdivision where Samohano lives, 95 homes were planned but only 27 built. The developer, Caribe Homes, unloaded its completed but unsold homes at fire-sale prices.

Consider the consequences: Fred Amaya paid $318,330 in March last year for a three-bedroom house in Antillean Isles -- the first home he and his wife Cindy ever owned. It is just two blocks from Samohano's home, which she purchased for $343,671.

This past November, Caribe Homes sold a finished five-bedroom home there to an investor for just $70,000 as part of a bulk sale. The developer sold another 21 houses in nearby subdivisions for the same amount. Such bargain-basement prices undercut existing owners by pushing down home values.

''It's going to be 10 years before I can make up the difference and the value of my home goes up,'' said Amaya, who is now trying to get his lender to reduce the principal owed on his mortgage.

''We tried to make the best of a difficult situation,'' said Fernando Martinez, vice president of Caribe Homes, which also unloaded hundreds of empty lots.

In a nearby gated subdivision named Mirage, Alaen and Cristina Alvarez paid $345,726 for a four-bedroom home in a community that promised 98 homes, a park and a gazebo along with "the charm that defined Old Florida.''

Instead, a quarter of the planned dwellings were built. Rather than the leafy new neighborhood he expected, Alvarez is living in a dust bowl where his car is regularly coated by a fine layer of dirt kicked up from the vacant home sites. 


''You like our halfway community?'' asked Alvarez, 29, standing in front of his home surveying the four empty lots neighboring his property. "The community is super quiet; there aren't many neighbors.''


Seven months ago, Ancelmo Fernandez, 22, decided to rent in the Old Biscayne Villas, next to farmland not far from the Florida Turnpike. Almost a third of the townhomes are unfinished shells. ''You see vagrants in there,'' said Fernandez, pointing to the cinder-block structures. "It's not safe. I once called the police. Nothing has changed since I got here.''

The Enclave at Black Point Marina, just south of Cutler Bay, promised 240 new homes. Today, the numbers tell the story: 180 vacant lots, 40 partially built homes, 20 finished dwellings, zero people, but one community manager.

''A person from the U.S. Census came here,'' said Ricardo Carillo, the community manager. 'She had a report of one person living here. I said, `No, no one here.' ''

Lakeesha Hill's family moved south to escape the crime in her Brownsville neighborhood and rented a townhome in a new 37-unit apartment complex in Naranja. ''We loved this place, had a whole backyard and everything. There were other families living next door,'' Hill said. "But then everything turned bad.''

The landlord was foreclosed upon. Most of the units are now unoccupied. Hill has moved in with her grandmother closer to Miami; she recently returned to the apartment and discovered homeless people there.

''This type of thing is happening all over the place down here,'' she said.

For analyst Cannon, the trends point to more change. ''The traditional home builder wishing to only create new subdivisions in far away areas will become a dinosaur in South Florida,'' he predicts.

The reasons are both psychological and practical and are fueled by two large population groups -- the baby boomers and the 20-something crowd referred to as millennials, said Coral Gables-based architect and urban planner Victor Dover.

Baby boomers increasingly want less house and the younger crowd is showing a desire to be closer to the action, said Dover, whose practice includes retrofitting sprawling suburbia.

''The real estate market will be flooded with a vast part of the population that has different needs than the detached single-family home,'' he said. "We are seeing the reurbanization of America.''

There's little evidence commuting will become easier in South Florida. Although energy costs have fluctuated, they are expected to rise in the long-term, making far-flung homes more expensive. And the region's big job centers -- downtown Miami, the Health District and Doral -- remain in or near the urban core.

That's why some suspect that overbuilt areas like Miami's Brickell neighborhood will fare better than newly built subdivisions on the fringe. ''At a certain price, those [Miami] units will get filled up,'' said Gus Gil, former president of the Latin Builders Association. "But that's not the case in places like Homestead, which doesn't have as much of an employment base.''

Many single-family home builders aren't so sure their suburban development model is outdated. They say the housing market's struggles are simply the result of a steep downturn, not a transforming market.


They prefer developing houses on big chunks of vacant land on the edge of suburbia because those projects are often less risky, less complicated and cheaper to build than condos. It has also proven enormously profitable. Besides, said builder Cardoso, lots of people still want the house and the yard in a leafy subdivision.

''You have to look at the history of Dade County,'' said Cardoso, who formerly was president of the Builders Association of South Florida. "How many condos sold before this craziness? The condo market will go back to what it was historically.''

For some, the dream of a new house in a palm-studded subdivision remains alive -- even if it means long commutes and living amid the wreckage of partially built neighborhoods and collapsing values for the time being.

Lured by the promise of a four-bedroom home on a quiet cul-de-sac and a half-acre lot, Rick Garcia, 27, moved from Kendall to an unincorporated area west of Homestead. Only 16 of 61 planned homes have been built; eight are occupied.

''I love it here,'' said Garcia, a Miami-Dade police officer who is married with two kids. "I could never have gotten a house like this in Kendall with a big yard for my kids to play in.''