Census figures show the county has state's highest rate of ownership, but finding a rental unit remains a challenge.
By SAUNDRA AMRHEIN
© St. Petersburg Times, published July 25, 2001
An annual salary topping $80,000 couldn't buy Zulema Rodriguez a dream house in New York City -- or much of any house at all.
But on a recent visit to Hernando County, she found a place where dreams won't break the bank.
"My jaw dropped to the ground when I found out what building a home would cost, especially when I compared it to any price in New York City or New Jersey," said the single mother and former publishing company employee who moved here two weeks ago, following two brothers to Hernando.
"They quoted me $71,000," without a pool, she said. "Here, to build a home with three bedrooms, it's soooooo affordable. It feels like I'm stealing."
Experts say Hernando's inexpensive land and houses, coupled with a large retirement population, fueled what has become the highest rate of homeownership in the state.
Numbers released today from the 2000 Census put Hernando at the top of the state, with 86.5 percent of all occupied units -- houses, mobile homes, condominiums -- filled by their owners.
On the flip side, Hernando ranks last when it comes to the share of units filled with renters -- 13.5-percent. Real estate agents say the county desperately needs more rental units to meet a growing demand for apartments by young professionals and aging seniors who can no longer maintain their homes.
Hernando's housing situation compared with the rest of the state hasn't shifted drastically since 1990, when only one Florida county had a higher rate of homeownership and lower percentage of rental property.
Though county and real estate officials say prices are inching up as younger, professional families move in from Tampa and other states, Hernando continues to benefit from low housing costs.
"I think that one of the reasons we have (a high ownership rate) is that we have had fairly inexpensive housing here for many years, even compared to Pasco and Citrus counties," said Alvin Mazourek, county property appraiser. For years, lots were cheap and plentiful while labor and construction costs stayed low.
Another reason for high ownership is that Spring Hill started as a retirement community.
"We have an older population," Mazourek said. "A lot of times, those residents will stay in place and don't move around as much as younger people."
But not only was the former Deltona Corp. luring Northern retirees to Spring Hill to build homes here decades ago. The company attracted Hispanic residents from Puerto Rico, as well as Long Island, contributing to the high number of Hispanic homeowners in Hernando County.
Census numbers show that among Hispanic householders in Hernando, 77.2-percent own their homes, the second-highest rate in the state.
"Most of the people that come down here are retired people, and they are looking for something they can afford to pay with their pensions," said Juan Aviles, president of the Domino Club, one of three Latino social clubs in Spring Hill.
For younger families moving into Hernando County for jobs or to follow parents, reasonable lending rates and low housing costs make it easier for them to buy a home, too, said Connell McGeehan, a Realtor at Coldwell Banker McGeehan and Sons in Spring Hill.
"Pretty much everybody has the opportunity to get into housing with minimal down payments," he said.
But with such a shortage in rental property, many don't have a choice, said Jeanne Gavish, manager of Century 21 Alliance's Mariner Boulevard office.
"It's very difficult to find rentals in Hernando County," she said.
She receives dozens of walk-in inquiries each week from people wanting to rent in Hernando County. She refers them to her rental office, which usually has only four or five rentals in its inventory.
"No one comes into an area blind and says, 'I think I'll buy here,' but sometimes they are forced to do that because the supply is so low and people can demand a high price," she said.
The demand for rentals, real estate agents say, is growing from professional families with a member who works in the medical or teaching profession.
Donna Poppo, recruiter of registered nurses for Oak Hill Hospital, says temporary nurses struggle to find furnished rental property during the winter months.
"It is increasingly difficult to find a furnished rented apartment in season," she said. "They are all taken by the snowbirds."
The nurses wind up staying with relatives in the area or other workers at the hospital.
"I sent out an e-mail saying if anyone has a room to rent for a few months, let me know," Poppo said.
Builders have been responding to the demand for rental property.
The county development department issued 29 permits since October for 160 multifamily housing units. That's up from a total of 138 units permitted last year and 35 units the year before that.
"We certainly noticed an increase in the past two years in multifamily housing," said Grant Tolbert, development director. "We're becoming more urbanized, and the vacancy rates are non-existent in our existing apartments."
The Suncoast Villa Apartments off Barclay Avenue north of Spring Hill Drive opened for its tenants in January. The first 64 units are full, and about a third of an additional 78 coming this fall are spoken for, said Karol Brewer, property manager and leasing agent.
About a third of all of their tenants are young professionals, while the rest are residents 55 and older. Rents for the two-bedroom, two-bathroom villas with attached garages are $650 a month, Brewer said.
"There is obviously a great need," she added. "We are just filling up so fast."
As the very elderly population in the county swells, the apartment complex with a build-out capacity of more than 360 units expects to become a growing alternative for seniors unable to care for their homes.
John O'Grady, 82, and his wife, Eve, moved there in January for medical reasons.
"I no longer could do the work around the house," he said. They sold the Spring Hill home they lived in for 17 years and looked at five or six rental homes.
"We just happened to roll into this one," he said. "We found it difficult to find a place we liked. Some of them were very old. This one is brand new and beautiful.
"I felt we were lucky."