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Disaster Capitalism and the Housing Crash

The Way to Paradise?

by ALAN FARAGO

In the meager real estate section of last week’s Miami Herald, there is a multi-color, mini magazine pull-out called: Paradise Way.

It is "sponsored by "Homestead’s Premier Builders: Caribe Homes, Lennar Homes, Lowell Homes, and United Homes." All are suffering through the worst crash in housing markets in a century-although you won’t read that comparison, yet, in the mainstream press. Lennar, one of the nation’s largest publicly-traded home builders, is based in Miami. The private owners of Caribe Homes are executive board members of the Latin Builders Association, the industry group that dominates South Florida through informally bundled campaign contributions.

Standing at the top of the Florida Keys, the city of Homestead is a mess of a small rural town converted by greed into yet another sprawl-ridden bonanza for production home builders now fallen on hard times. It is where the building boom came to a screeching halt in Miami Dade, Florida’s largest of most politically influential county.

As advertised in The Miami Herald, Paradise Way represents the aspects of disaster capitalism that can’t be papered over.

Of course, papering over the housing bust is exactly what lobbyists and lawyers and engineering firms are doing now, where the papering involved is more zoning changes to drive wedges into the Urban Development Boundary, a politically drawn line that separates farmland and open space from areas served by county-funded infrastructure.

These are exactly the sort of local decisions, served up by well-rehearsed local public officials as positive benefits to the tax base, that the citizen revolt called Florida Hometown Democracy would like to extract from the hands of county commissioners and put directly in the hands of voters, if enough signatures can be gathered to qualify for a state-wide referendum.

The Florida Chamber of Commerce and Associated Industries call it a recipe for chaos, as though blind to the chaos they have created. Business interests are raising money-as much money as it will take-to stop the measure. That is one aspect to the rise of disaster capitalism–how it succeeds most when citizens are isolated from their representative government.

But there are so many more aspect to tally. So, tally ho.

A second, generally speaking, is suburban sprawl and the myth that sprawl is "what the market wants", the fiction of "low cost" housing that imposes long commutes and other tangible costs on families, absent adequate transit infrastructure and measures to protect quality of life from shifting baselines. Scientists call it benignly: "target creep".

In Miami-Dade alone, county departments total infrastructure deficits well in excess of $10 billion. Who will pay, is anyone’s guess, now that the cratering tax base is scrambling local government budgets. Who will pay, now that we have embraced strip mall culture and acquiesced children to latch-key lifestyles?

A third aspect of the disaster is how the banking and financial industries created the building boom and are now suffering hundreds of billions of losses, having used historic low interest rates of the Federal Reserve to manufacture liquidity through financial derivatives, raining billions in profits through commissions, fees, and compensation that all but obscured any reasonable assessment by Congress or the US Treasury. Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, both scenes of financial crimes only a few years ago as the housing boom gathered steam, are now being championed as the way to save home owners victimized by unscrupulous mortgage brokers who were paid higher commissions, in some cases, as they pushed consumers into toxic loans.

A fourth aspect is the one making the network news: how consumers of plain old mortgages were persuaded to abandon caution and incur debt far beyond their means, using houses as piggy banks for personal consumption or chits for speculation. It happened at all levels of the housing markets.

A fifth aspect of the disaster is how the bankrupt model of suburban sprawl shut down criticism one might ordinarily expect from the media, increasingly controlled by large corporations beholden to the imperatives of quarterly profits often tied, indirectly or directly, to all the wings, dings, bells and whistles of production housing and related economic activities.

The outlines of this disaster are becoming clear, like invisible ink suddenly made legible by time. Earlier this week, the New York Times featured news that The McClatchy Company, "publisher of more than 30 daily newspapers including The Miami Herald and The Sacramento Bee, reported a 55 percent drop in profit amid declines in real estate advertising and announced that it would take an undetermined charge against its third-quarter earnings. Revenue was down more than 9 percent."

As Knight Ridder fattened up quarterly profits for the sale of its businesses like The Miami Herald to the benefit of shareholders and key executives, any criticism of the suburban sprawl or investigation of the underlying economic, social and environmental realities were muted or throttled.

In today’s decline, criticism by the media is still parsed as carefully as medieval theologians counting angels on the head of a pin, or, hits by Adclick.

A sixth aspect of the disaster manifests very well in Homestead, where just beyond "paradise way", pollution is wrecking Biscayne National Park and the Everglades. Up to $20 billion will be spent to restore the Everglades ecosystem. The plan fails in its most elemental aspects to back up dramatic hope with common sense solutions to intractable water management problems.

The Lennar fire-sale, advertised separately from "Paradise Today" in The Miami Herald,-occurs at the edge, at exactly just such a location pressing up against former wetlands that run to Biscayne National Park in South Miami Dade, only a mile away.

For decades, environmentalists have been on the defensive, trying to protect coastal wetlands in Florida from the predation of greedy developers who wear the hat of conservationists whenever it pleases. It is cheap to be an environmentalist: just say so in states like Florida, and it is done. This leads to the seventh aspect of the disaster.

During the building boom, promoted and advocated by two-term Florida governor Jeb Bush, environmental groups were played off one another the way a cat toys with a mouse. As government regulatory authority diminished, the matter of ethics took a sharp nose-dive: even within the environmental community, fratricide was often the order of the day.

The triggers were compromises that browns accepted and the greens did not: "public/private partnerships", "win/win scenarios", or "habitat conservation initiatives"– language easy as Muzak or sensible shoes to cushion the blows to the public interest.

The jargon goes something like this: no one wants to treat the environment badly so long as property rights are respected and the right to build "cheaply" in outlying areas foists costs on taxpayers is maintained with as much sanctity as taking communion or reading the Torah. Throw precaution to the wind, and so it was.

The absolutism that brooks no dissent leads to an eighth aspect of the disaster. The failure to report and to hold accountable industry and public officials to laws protecting the air we breathe, the water we share, and wilderness all contributed to the subversion of democracy. Every day at County Hall the cynicism is overpowering, as though actors from a middle school play (or JD Salinger novel) were in charge of the world with no obligation to the learned values of a civil society.

And so the ninth and tenth aspects of the disaster are embodied in Paradise Way itself, "the ideal residential lifestyle, the right time to buy".

From the point of view of rapidly dwindling farmland, trashed watersheds, wetlands and nearby national parks, the housing boom and bust afflicting cities like Homestead, Florida have been unmitigated disasters, unless you smart and lucky enough to sell into the pandemonium. Yes, some individual buyers are thrilled with their residential lifestyle. Yes, some could care less about the pitched battles in zoning chambers that resulted, years later, in platted subdivisions they love. Yes, whether endangered species crossed where their asphalt driveways now lay never creased their brows.

Even if they cared, what could they do about it? And yes, the mechanics of disaster capitalism depend on your doing nothing.

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