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Can Tampa Bay's middle class be saved?

Is the intensity of this recession putting Tampa Bay's middle class at risk? Is it, as author Don Peck suggests in a new book, "a mirage"?

"Part of what the recession has illustrated is that a very large class of people in the United States is falling behind," Peck warns in Pinched: How the Great Recession Has Narrowed Our Futures & What We Can Do About It.

An editor at Atlantic magazine in Washington, D.C., Peck explores possible solutions to what the country slowly is realizing will be a nation-changing economic downturn. Among those changes:

• There will be no quick rebound. We can no longer just wait for a recovery in economic activity just so we can "get back to normal."

• Chronic, high unemployment is going to be a major challenge for this country long after the 2012 elections. It may well remain a key issue even beyond the 2016 political campaigns.

• Without greater urgency to better educate Americans — and that does not mean sending everybody to college even if we could — many in the coming generation of young adults will find themselves struggling to carve out a sustainable, middle-class lifestyle.

Peck's book is lean, just 188 pages, yet offers a surprising sweep of this and past U.S. recessions. But it is his reporting from the Tampa Bay area — from an embattled Bridgewater planned community in eastern Pasco County to the struggling Carriage Pointe development in Gibsonton — that raises broader questions about the vulnerabilities of our own metro area.

In Pinched, Peck's Bridgewater tales look at a community built largely during the 2005-2006 boom times, near the peak of housing prices. The author, a graduate of Dartmouth College with a master's from Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs, describes what recently has become a norm here: a development contending with empty houses, with many remaining homeowners stuck with mortgages exceeding the value of their homes.

Peck writes of a Miami gang that set up shop in Bridgewater briefly and the resulting gunfire. But Bridgewater fights back even as the community becomes more transitory. It survives, Peck writes, with the "cudgel" of a homeowners association that uses its legal authority of fines and liens to try to keep what's left of the community in decent shape.

Peck's description of Gibsonton's Carriage Pointe development, awash in "short sale" signs and junk-strewn, overgrown yards, is less encouraging.

Why are these stories in this book? Because Peck, 42, argues that Tampa Bay — which just as easily could be Phoenix, Las Vegas or dozens of other Sun Belt metro areas — attracted blue-collar workers and families by the droves when home prices were appreciating quickly. They came here and to similar areas, Peck says, because they wanted in on a boomtown but were already priced out of more expensive housing areas like Washington, D.C., Boston and many cities in California.

The trick, Peck says, is that when the housing bubble burst, this region lacked the depth and range of decent-paying jobs to sustain thousands of families armed with only high school educations or perhaps a few community college courses. They came here expecting housing appreciation to serve as their piggy bank.

That's a key point. Tampa Bay — all of Florida — obsesses on sheer growth. If we're attracting a thousand people a day (as we once did 25 years or so ago), then all is well and construction of the next strip shopping mall can begin.

There must be something here, the old logic goes, that's got folks flocking. Sun! Fun! Cheap(er) living! Low(er) taxes!

Peck's point is just the opposite. If a place like Tampa Bay can't deepen its bench of jobs that pay middle-class wages — we're talking $15 an hour at least, with benefits and full-time status — then we have no business building piles of cheap housing with low-interest mortgages and encouraging a local economy far too dependent on construction jobs.

That's how we got in this pickle from the start.

Writes Peck in Pinched: "Former oases for aspiring middle-class Americans — Phoenix, Tampa, Las Vegas — have been exposed as mirages."

That's harsh, even if it has a ring of truth. When I first asked Peck for an interview with the St. Petersburg Times, he quickly volunteered in an e-mail: "Please know that I wish nothing but the best for Tampa."

To Peck, Tampa Bay is emblematic of many U.S. cities that seemed to provide "great opportunity and a middle-class lifestyle to people who could not find it elsewhere."

Our area, Peck argues, faces a dilemma. The construction industry has shrunk dramatically and is unlikely to grow back to the behemoth it once was.

But there are still a lot of people in the Tampa Bay area who were drawn by the housing boom and now are stuck in homes they can't sell or with jobs that went away. That helps explain the metro's 11.1 percent jobless rate.

"So," Peck asks, "what do you do? Where does the cash come from?

"When you look at those cities that are recovering, many have a very highly educated work force." He cites Manhattan, San Jose, Calif., Minneapolis and Washington, D.C., as examples.

"They have very strong local universities" he said. "They often have lots of tech companies that are within the city or close by. And they are recovering."

So how do we get out of this mess? Slowly. If Peck's scenario is on target, and I think much of it is, then all we can do is pick ourselves up and start fixing things.

For one thing, streamline education. Improve high school graduation rates. Push those with college potential to go and actually get a degree. Identify those unlikely to make it in college and direct them to quality training opportunities or even apprenticeships — in manufacturing, in auto mechanics, in health care technologies — that at least offer middle-class opportunities.

We must rally the Tampa Bay community as a whole to make this a priority.

What we don't do is allow ourselves to fall back on old habits. Stop giving lip service to raising the education bar. And stop relying so much on construction and new housing to refloat our economy.

Otherwise, we're just heading back into the bubble.

Robert Trigaux can be reached at trigaux@sptimes.com.

Excerpts on Tampa Bay from 'Pinched'

On Tampa's low ranking, 84th among the 100 largest cities, by the prevalence of college graduates in 2009:

"Little wonder, then, that some of the highest and most persistent unemployment rates in the country are to be found in these former boomtowns."

When the construction industry stopped driving our economy:

"With the construction boom over, many former boomtowns have few large, highly productive industries to sustain them, and a comparatively narrow base of human capital."

On what attracted many to the Tampa Bay market in the first place:

"As the (housing) bubble inflated, first-time buyers found it harder to get in on the action — particularly in high-priced city-regions with diverse and thriving economies like San Francisco, Los Angeles, New York and Boston. But, of course, with most people's salaries and wages going nowhere, getting in on the game was also becoming more urgent. Within city-regions, that fueled explosive growth in faraway exurbs. Nationally, it prompted a helter-skelter rush into lower-priced but fast-appreciating metro areas like Orlando, Tampa, Phoenix and Las Vegas — the same places now suffering the worst effects of the crash."

Why the Tampa Bay economy resembled a house of cards:

"Yet the boom itself neither followed nor resulted in the development of sustainable, scalable, highly productive industries or services. It was fueled and funded by housing, and housing was its primary product. Whole cities and metro regions became giant Ponzi schemes."

Warning that Tampa Bay could be stuck as a second-tier metro area:

"At the peak of the market, housing construction and related activities accounted for more than a quarter of the economy in Phoenix and Las Vegas, and 30 percent in Orlando. Florida posits that these cities, among others hit especially hard by the housing crash, may never recover. The very nature of their attraction has left them with very large populations, but not an especially high level of human capital; the country's economic elite for the most part clustered elsewhere."

Want to see what failure looks like after the burst housing bubble? Head south to Carriage Pointe in Gibsonton:

"Where the ubiquitous and exotic real estate signage — For Sale, Short Sale, Neighborhood Stabilization Program Sale — is frequently obscured by thigh-high weeds; where the detritus of foreclosure and eviction (old couches, broken TVs, cardboard boxes) sits forlornly in driveways and on curbs; and where some of the people who still live among the vacant shells around them will not open their door in the daytime to a 40ish man who says he's a reporter."

What happens when the middle class awakens from its dream of financial security through rising home prices?

"One of the biggest imperatives the nation faces in the years ahead is making sure its middle class retains its sense of optimism and opportunity. Ultimately, housing is too flimsy a foundation upon which to build that ethos. We need to replace it with one that is sound."

Can Tampa Bay's middle class be saved? 09/10/11 [Last modified: Monday, September 12, 2011 11:23am]

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