President Barack Obama is in Fort Myers, Florida on Tuesday, February 10, holding campaign-style events to promote his emergency economic stimulus bill. Scheduled to appear with the President was Florida's Republican governor, Charlie Crist. It's an understandable choice of location for a President focused on convincing the public of the need for immediate action: Florida's economy is bad, and getting worse. The New York Times' front-page headline for a story highlighting Fort Myers was " In Florida, Despair and Foreclosures" (registration required). The statistics were grim: Median home prices dropping from $332,200 in December of 2005 to $215,200 in December 2007 — and then plunging to $106,900 two months ago; 8.8% of the county's jobs disappearing between June 2007 and June 2008; and unemployment rate of 9.85. And the anecdotes were troubling: foreclosed homeowners struggling to find temporary accommodations, long lines forming for free bread, and laid-off construction workers rummaging through trash bags at a foreclosed home, looking for anything to sell. In a real estate market that has fallen farther, faster, and harder than any in the nation, Floridians are searching for clues that they may be nearing the bottom. In Miami-Dade County, builders started just 72 new homes in fourth-quarter 2008, down from 240 in the third quarter, the Miami Herald reported.
In Broward County to the south, there were just 13 starts (down from 203 in the previous quarter) — a number close enough to zero that the difference hardly matters. Starts are down throughout South Florida for the 14th quarter in a row, reported the South Florida Business Journal Total starts for 2008 were just 3,903, down from 27,444 at the peak in 2004 and 2005. Data for both the South Florida Business Journal and the Miami Herald story came from Metrostudy, a real estate consulting firm. According to Metrostudy, central Florida is one of the most overbuilt places in the U.S., with more than a 9-month supply of finished new homes standing vacant at the current pace of sales. But there is at least a small silver lining, reports the Miami Herald's Monica Hatcher: for the lucky few able to secure a mortgage, home prices are becoming affordable — even to working people who had thought that owning a home was out of reach. For those who can scrape together a down payment, buying may even beat renting. And with prices off more than 40% from the peaks of two years ago, said one real estate agent, there are "a bunch of investors running around town with cash" looking for bargains. Can the Obama stimulus turn Florida around? Maybe not, but it could cushion the fall. In interviews last week, the President focused on energy retrofits as a centerpiece of his job-creation effort. That would dovetail well with Florida Governor Crist's focus on energy: Crist signed an executive order last year mandating a 15% upgrade in the state energy efficiency code for new homes. And energy expert Philip Fairey, of the Florida Solar Energy Center, argues that a program of energy upgrades for existing homes — which Obama is now pushing — would be a better energy investment than offshore drilling in the Gulf of Mexico.