For Hernando County's housing market, this is what qualifies as good news: The U.S. Census Bureau last year counted only 15.1 percent of our houses as empty.
As you might have read on CNNMoney.com or one of several other websites that reported this story, the statewide vacancy rate was significantly higher, 17.5 percent.
Some of these articles, such as this one on AOL's personal finance website, WalletPop.com, generously added to the percentage of empty houses and, well, didn't do all they could have to put the figure in perspective:
"Nearly 20% of the homes, all homes, in Florida are vacant. Vacant as in no one lives there. At all. When almost 1 in 5 homes in a state are vacant, it gives new, economically dismal meaning to the phrase 'no one's home.' "
This is not reporting so much as an invitation to gawkers: Step up and see the poor freaks who invested in Florida real estate.
Because in many cases, someone is home, at least part of the year.
The Census Bureau asks residents who own more than one house where they spend the most time annually. That is their primary residence, the one counts as occupied. Any other home — a winter getaway, a beach cottage — is considered vacant. If the time they spend at different residences is equal, their location on April 1 — a time when many snowbirds have returned north — serves as a tiebreaker.
"Over the decades, Florida has been a haven for second homes, vacation homes, etc. — more so perhaps than any other state in the eastern United States; these homes are being portrayed by this 'journalist' as completely empty," Hernando demographic planner David Miles wrote in an e-mail about the CNN story.
Miles is a low-key policy wonk, by the way, who usually does his talking with a calculator. When he puts sarcastic quote marks around "journalist," that means he's really fired up. The reason for this, Miles said, is the lack of context in some, though not all, of these stories about the state's vacancy rate.
In the pre-boom, pre-bust year of 2000, 11.6 percent of the houses in Hernando were classified as empty. That means the vacancy rate between 2000 and 2010 increased 30.2 percent, which is slightly less than the state average. Its 2010 vacancy rate, meanwhile, was about half that of some of the worst-off counties, such as Collier and Lee, where that figure was at or above 30 percent. Those were both centers for the building of high-rise condominiums, each of which can add several hundred empty housing units to the market.
That's not to say things are good here; of course, there's still a huge glut of homes. It's just that figuring out how many houses were left abandoned by speculators or overwhelmed homeowners, and how many are simply second homes, requires a closer examination of Census Bureau numbers in various parts of the county. (See accompanying map on Page 3.)
First, look at the census block group that includes Bayport, Pine Island and Weeki Wachee Gardens. The vacancy rate there — 42 percent — is the highest in the county, but these are waterside neighborhoods full of vacation homes. That's also true of Nobleton and Istachatta, in northeastern Hernando near the Withlacoochee River. The high percentage of empty houses (24 percent) in the tract that contains Southern Hills, on the south side of Brooksville, is probably due to a combination of speculation and second houses. The same is true of Hernando Beach. In Royal Highlands, not a renowned resort spot, the high vacancy rate is almost certainly due to boom-time speculation.
We'll get a fuller picture of all these neighborhoods — the age of their residents, their income, education levels and towns where they moved from — in the next few months as more census data is released.
For now, here's what else the census has revealed about Hernando:
The county's population last year was 172,778, a 32.1 percent increase since 2000, just slightly higher than the growth rate during the previous 10 years.
Hernando, following statewide and national trends, has become more diverse. The percentage of people claiming Hispanic heritage — 10.3 percent — has more than doubled. The percentage of African-Americans in the county grew from 4.1 percent to 5.1 percent.
The number of people identifying themselves as more than one race is still only 2 percent, though that is nearly twice the percentage of 10 years ago. This is a trend that led to one of the biggest stories — on the front page of Sunday's New York Times, for example — to come out of the census so far: the increasing acceptance of mixed-race relationships in the United States, especially the South.
Of course, in Florida, the news is mainly about vacant homes. It's bad, but around here not quite as bad as some reporters make it sound. Plus, we finally get to feel superior to all those rich folks down in Naples.