Even though the housing market shows faint glimmers of recovery, tough times are by no means over — bankruptcy filings in the Tampa-Fort Myers district are pouring in at a near-record pace.
On Thursday, court clerks logged in the 11,000th case filed since Jan. 1 — a Palm Harbor cleaner who makes $378 a month and has $228,000 in debts, mostly on credit cards. If filings continue at the same rate, the total for 2009 will exceed 27,000, more than at any time except in an unusual year when debtors rushed to file ahead of a new law that made it harder to declare bankruptcy.
"What startled me about that (11,000) number is that the numbers are beyond anything we had anticipated," said Judge Michael Williamson of the U.S. Bankruptcy Court in Tampa.
"We knew at the beginning of the year that given economic conditions, our filings were going to increase, but we didn't estimate that they would increase so steadily to the levels they are today,'' he said.
The Tampa-Fort Myers division, which stretches from Hernando County to Naples, includes communities like Spring Hill and Cape Coral that were especially hard hit by the collapse of the housing boom. Many people now in bankruptcy took out multiple loans to buy homes at inflated prices, then were unable to sell or refinance as values plunged.
"We're seeing a record number of second and third mortgages that are completely underwater, meaning that the value of the property is just enough to cover the first mortgage," Williamson said.
One fallout of the housing crisis is an increase in filings under Chapter 13, which automatically stops foreclosure proceedings and lets debtors work out a court-approved repayment plan over three to five years.
"The number of cases has gone through the roof, and those are people trying to save their houses," Williamson said. "That's become particularly difficult in today's market, because it's hard to save a house that's completely upside down."
Among those filing a Chapter 13 bankruptcy on Thursday was an unemployed Riverview man whose home, refinanced for $157,500, is now worth $140,000. On his unemployment income and his wife's $42,000 yearly pay as an administrative assistant, the couple will try to pay off debts totalling $318,400.
As of the end of April, the last month for which complete statistics are available, 3,106 debtors in the Tampa-Fort Myers division had filed under Chapter 13. Another 5,929 filed no asset, liquidation bankruptcies under Chapter 7.
"It's pretty much the same as what we've been seeing — people reaching the end of the rope because they've lost their jobs or taken a reduction in (hours) as more businesses start to get tight,'' said Judge Catherine Peek McEwen.
And the soaring number of personal bankruptcies puts even more pressure on local businesses. Debtors struggling to make their Chapter 13 payments stop dining out, delay getting their hair cut, skimp on car repairs or cancel the gym membership.
At the current rate, bankruptcies in the Tampa-Fort Myers division will hit 27,128 this year — about 500 more than the highest level ever reached in a "normal'' year. The all-time record of 30,048 was set in 2005, but that is considered an aberration because of the rush to file before the tough new bankruptcy law took effect.
Nationally, bankruptcy filings are expected to exceed 1.4 million this year, compared with the 1.1 million recorded in 2008.
While the majority of debtors are individuals who defaulted on their mortgages or can't pay their credit card bills, the next wave of filings could include owners of vacant commercial properties that are no longer bringing in rent.
"The scuttlebutt is that a lot of those troubled assets are being worked out outside of bankruptcy, but the workouts have to run out of gas at some point," McEwen said. "We have yet to see the shoe drop in terms of commercial buildings."
Susan Taylor Martin can be contacted at email@example.com.