Housing bust echoes through empty homes

The Tampa Bay area's vacancy rate is No. 2 in the nation.

By James Thorner, Times Staff Writer
Published March 5, 2008

Even in a housing market accustomed to the glum, the numbers are jarring: One in 20 homes in the Tampa Bay area is vacant, ranking the region second-worst in the nation. That's 5.1 percent of single-family homes, condos, townhomes and mobile homes.

The recent U.S. Census Bureau report, which counts homes listed for sale but unoccupied, was disheartening to St. Petersburg Realtor James Tuten, but not shocking. Whether it's his four investment homes sitting empty for lack of buyers or customers who were forced out of houses by unaffordable mortgages, Tuten has seen ample evidence of the ranking.

"You've had all those boom developments over the years. Now you've got all this housing and there's nobody to take it," he said.

Underscoring Central Florida's woes: Orlando, with a 7.4 percent vacancy rate, trumped the bay area as the worst market for vacant homes among the 75 biggest metro areas in the United States. Miami and Jacksonville rounded out the bottom 10, along with Las Vegas, Cleveland and Atlanta.

At the height of the boom in 2005, Tampa's 1.8 percent vacancy rate was below the national average of 1.9 percent. By the end of 2007, our vacancies were nearly twice the national rate of 2.7 percent.

Despite the smallish sample used by the Census Bureau - only a few thousand households in the Tampa/St. Petersburg/Clearwater area were surveyed over 2007 - University of Florida economist David Denslow vouched for the region's relative ranking atop the list.

"I think we're seeing here a genuine phenomenon related to the overbuilding that occurred," Denslow said. "Typically when a housing boom ends, you see a rise in the vacancy rate. People overprice and are forced to hang on to their houses."

The foreclosure epidemic is only partly reflected in the vacancy survey. That's because many homes in default remain occupied until the bank repossesses them. And for the government to count a home as vacant, it has to be for sale. Foreclosures can tie up properties for months and keep them off the market.

For real estate insiders like Tuten, excess vacancy saps more than profits. Many unoccupied homes in St. Petersburg are older, modest dwellings needing rehabilitation. With buyers playing scarce, Tuten wonders, how long before a neighborhood starts to suffer?

"You're talking dilapidated neighborhoods and streets, illegal activities taking place," he said. "It's really degrading these neighborhoods."

Tampa's vacancy rate has averaged about 2.7 percent in surveys going back to 1986. The previous high was 4.3 percent in 1991 during the last property meltdown.

One encouraging statistic broke through the gloom of the vacancy numbers. In the same report, the Census Bureau said the Tampa Bay region's homeownership rate climbed to a record 72.9 percent in 2007.

James Thorner can be reached at thorner@sptimes.com or 813 226-3313.

From boom to bust

Rise in homeowner vacancy rates in Florida cities:

2005 2007 Tampa-St. Petersburg-Clearwater 1.8 % 5.1 % Orlando 2% 7.4% Jacksonville 3.3% 4.6% Miami 2.3% 4.4%

Source: U.S. Census Bureau