Florida’s Swing Counties Mired in Foreclosures: BGOV Barometer

Florida’s Swing Counties Mired in Foreclosures
Overbuilding, population growth and speculators helped fuel Florida's housing boom. Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg

As the U.S. housing market digs out of the rubble left by record foreclosures and home price declines, there’s little evidence of recovery in one place where it counts most: The campaign battleground of Florida.

The BGOV Barometer shows the situation is particularly dire in five swing counties where voters could determine which presidential candidate wins the crucial state.

In the central Florida counties of Hillsborough, Orange, Pinellas, Seminole and Volusia, the foreclosure rate averages 11 percent, compared with the national rate of 3.4 percent, according to data provider CoreLogic Inc.

Set between the Republican-dominated North Florida and the more Democratic southern counties, these suburban communities of middle-class voters are known for their shifting allegiances. In 2008, Obama took four of the five counties to capture Florida. George W. Bush won three of the counties, and the state, in 2004. In 2000, Volusia’s vote count was disputed by Vice President Al Gore, Bush’s Democratic opponent. Gore won the county yet lost Florida by 537 votes, giving Bush his first term as president.

Overbuilding, population growth and speculators helped fuel the state’s housing boom. Now the bust has been drawn out by a court system unable to handle the glut of foreclosures. The average Florida foreclosure takes 861 days, second only to New York, at 1,001 days, according to RealtyTrac Inc.

Underwater Mortgages

About half of the mortgaged homes in the five swing counties are underwater, meaning owners owe more on the properties than they’re worth. That’s almost double the national rate of about 1 in 4, or about 11.4 million households, that have negative equity, CoreLogic reports.

“We’re used to leading out of a recession instead of lagging,” said Susan MacManus, political science professor at the University of South Florida in Tampa. “You have a lot of impatience here.”

Nationally, the improved housing picture has helped push the subject off the short list of talking points for both presidential candidates. On the stump, neither President Barack Obama nor Republican challenger Mitt Romney give housing much play, even in the Sunshine State.

“You can’t talk about improving the economy in Florida without talking about improving the housing market,” said Brian Crowley, a principal at Immediacy Public Relations Inc. in North Palm Beach and author of the Crowley Political Report.

Foreclosure Concerns

“Both of these candidates, when they come into Florida they tend to talk in sweeping terms,” he said. “If your house is about to be foreclosed on, you don’t care about the macroeconomics.”

While campaigning, Obama touts an existing program that has helped some borrowers refinance their mortgages to low interest rates even if their homes have lost value. Romney says a broader economic fix that creates jobs is the first step toward healing housing.

Neither message holds much appeal to homeowners still waiting for the housing recovery to reach them, and the political price could be high, said Brent Wilkes, executive director of the League of United Latin American Citizens, a civil rights group. In 2008, Obama won Florida by 2.8 percentage points. A CNN/Time poll last week showed the Florida race almost deadlocked, with likely voters favoring Obama by 4 percentage points, with a margin of error of 3.5 percent.

“I’m surprised. They all realize how important these swing areas are,” Wilkes said. “So much of the way people vote is based on their personal situation. If you’re a homeowner and you’re in trouble, or you were a homeowner and lost your home, that’s going to be at the top of your mind.”

Florida holds 29 of the 270 electoral votes needed to win the election. Nevada, another toss-up still reeling from the collapse, has six. The two states top Trulia Inc.’s Housing Misery Index, which tracks delinquencies and home prices.

“If we’re going to hear about housing at any point in the election it will probably be in Florida,” said Jed Kolko, chief economist at Trulia Inc. in San Francisco. “So far we’ve heard very little.”

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