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The unfinished American dream

EGG HARBOR TOWNSHIP, N.J. — At the new community of Seapine Estates, street names like Sea Foam Drive and Shoreline Road are meant to evoke a feeling of coastal tranquility. Instead, the two dozen or so residents of this New Jersey shore development, near Atlantic City, feel anything but peace. The Pennsylvania builder went bankrupt last summer and halted work, leaving open foundations, unfinished homes and empty streets that have invited outsiders to dump trash, spray graffiti and race cars.

As America's housing market has foundered, homeowners who bought into newly rising projects at just the wrong time have found themselves marooned in stalled, abandoned or largely unoccupied developments with little place to turn, placing a strain on them and municipalities forced to pick up the pieces.

Across the country

Experts say it's one of the least examined aspects of the housing downturn, one that has struck many parts of the country, from areas like Las Vegas, which experienced rampant speculation and overbuilding, to cities where construction was more restrained, such as the Jersey shore and Philadelphia.

The housing market remains in the doldrums: All but one of 20 metropolitan areas showed home price declines in January from a year ago, down 10.7 percent overall, according to the latest figures from the widely watched Standard & Poor's/Case-Shiller home price index. Sixteen of the 20 metro areas posted record lows, with Las Vegas and Miami tying for the weakest market. Only Charlotte, N.C., bucked the trend, eking out an almost 2 percent gain.

Ken Bachman, 37, who lives on a half-empty street in

Seapine, feels trapped. When he leaves the house every day, he has to look at an unsightly, unfinished home across the street. Bankrupt Elliott Building Group of Langhorne, Pa., had planned more than 200 houses in the development with prices starting around $300,000, but residents say the community is only about a fifth occupied.

"It's an undesirable place to live right now," Bachman said. "Homes have been on the market for sale in here for over a year and they're just not selling, because who wants to move into a development that's bankrupt?"

Safety issue

More than 25,000 vacant and abandoned properties cost eight Ohio cities at least $63-million, as local governments deal with job losses and the foreclosure crisis, according to a February report commissioned by ReBuild Ohio, a coalition of local government, nonprofit and civic groups.

At the unfinished Sea-

pine Estates, Denise and Kevin Urtubey, parents of a toddler, worry about the safety of their daughter. Cars have raced down the street in the middle of the night; a couple was found having sex toward the back of the development; tubs and other debris have been dumped in empty lots.

"It wouldn't have happened if the neighborhood's completed. It's not a dead-end street. It's just that nobody's back there," said Denise Urtubey, 27.

In the past year, builders that have filed for bankruptcy include Levitt and Sons in Fort Lauderdale, Tousa Inc. in Hollywood, Fla., and Neumann Homes Inc. in Warrenville, Ill.

Unfinished communities — as was the case with

Seapine — are more likely to come from small or medium-sized builders because they are more prone to run into financing problems than large builders, said Joe Snider, housing analyst for Moody's Investors Service in New York.

Eric Bryant, 43, has been waiting since last June for his upscale Toll Brothers Inc. community in Las Vegas to start filling up.

"It's very quiet — it's extremely quiet," he said.

The unfinished American dream 04/16/08 [Last modified: Wednesday, April 16, 2008 10:29pm]
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