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What Congress Won't Hear from Wall Street

Housing Market Crashes and Burns

by ALAN FARAGO

Why did the bank thief in Homestead, Florida think he could get away with using a stolen backhoe "to lift and haul away a drive-through ATM from a Bank of America early Tuesday"?

Because that’s pretty much how it works in Homestead, where political cronies run a once-rural now sprawl ridden community like their own ATM.

Homestead abuts two national parks that define the Everglades. The transformation of Homestead, in defiance of economic opportunites that might have been embraced by a gateway community to national parks, happened at a blazing pace during the building boom.

Its political and economic elite did not only look away from the environment, it demonized civic activists and those who disagreed with the primacy of bulldozers, graders, and drag lines.

For decades, Homestead businessmen enviously watched their neighbors to the north cash in on the opportunities of sunshine, tourism, and warm winter beaches, chafing for their moment to cash in.

Most Florida communities have been throwing up road blocks to Walmarts, in a desperate effort to preserve character of place. But in Homestead-the last vestige of Florida’s agricultural past in southeast Florida and in the state’s largest county-it’s all for sale, all the time.

With the bulging tourism economy of the Keys to the south, Homestead potato and tomato farmers and bankers (whose loans to land owners were tied to the speculative value of farmland) felt like fishermen at a weir in the stream, just waiting for population growth to push enough people down the Florida Turnpike to tip the scales from the quiet sleepy life to strip malls, multiplexes, auto dealerships, speedways, trains, road widening, highway interchanges, and airports.

In the mid-1990’s, after a devastating hurricane, with open arms the Homestead cronies intended to welcome the privatization of a military base (Homestead AFB) but got all tangled up in violations of the law and environmental barriers.

This is one of the more interesting phenomenon, that manifested in places like Homestead and other special places in America bordered by fragile natural resources.

Today, the landscapes that needed to be protected were vacuumed up by an industry that leaves a footprint as permanent as concrete building pads.

Now that production home builders are slashing prices by as much as 50 percent just to push back against the worst entropy in housing markets in recent history, a question arises: throughout the housing boom, environmentalists and civic activists were challenged to be even half right about their claims to protection of law, clean air, water, fisheries and protections for public space.

The environment and the economy was painted to be just such a balance: fifty / fifty, half and half.

So now that publicly traded production homebuilders, many of whom were active in Homestead and Miami, are trading down to book value, and may have to fall 50 percent more just to settle at the point they were in the housing recession of the early 1990’s, it turns out that civic activists were 100 percent right: that tract housing planted in farmland, far from places of work, is not just an eyesore, doesn’t just threaten water to aquifers and the bay, it’s not even close to being economic.

So why aren’t all those Homestead political cronies who trashed the public interest instead of giving it a fair hearing when it might have mattered in places held to at least as high a standard as the ATM thief will be held when he is caught?

This is more than a point dredged from memories of an aggrieved past.

Today, Congress is entertaining recommendations to reform the financial practices that lead to the problem in the first place-but so far as the press has reported, Congress is heading off in the wrong direction.

The problem is not lending practices or more careful regulation of mortgage backed securities that now lack adequate review by once-trusted rating agencies like Standard and Poor’s and Moody’s.

The problem is on the ground in places like Homestead (Agrestic, anyone?) and other sprawl ridden communities in America. That is where Congress needs to look: how to stop tract housing that has proven to be economic only when fraud, deception, and trashing of the public interest outweigh legitimate cost factors, including for instance the value of national parks, of clean and reliable supplies of drinking water–all of which belong in the costing models but are left out, in perverse irony to the phantom derivatives multiplied by Wall Street ten or twenty times the value of mortgages on the ground that turn out to be, well, not worthy very much.

Today, the bankers and developers who were all over Homestead farmland like vultures on a dead python for zoning and building permits (and contributed their share of liar loan mortgages that triggered a world credit crisis) are in hiding.

(Practically speaking, what that means is that they are on the phone with their Senators and Congressmen and the Bush White House, appealing for a bail-out by federal agencies or the government sponsored entities like Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. Just you watch!)

The Latin Builders Association-atrophied and less muscular these days-has to double down at the time (and for the upcoming 2008 presidential election): political candidates need campaign contributions even though there is no market, or next to none, for suburban sprawl.

Today, the demographics of Homestead have changed. Hispanics could tilt the vote in a new direction in upcoming municipal elections. These voters didn’t profit from the building boom so much as get dragged under the bus by its false promises.

Homestead and Florida City turned into exactly what so many residents and voters didn’t want: a traffic snarled, sprawling mess, with a NASCAR racetrack, a Walmart and enough ATM’s not to miss a stolen one.

ALAN FARAGO of Coral Gables, who writes about the environment and the politics of South Florida, can be reached at alanfarago@yahoo.com.